Native to East Asia, these frequently misrepresented animals are unique, gentle creatures that serve as major cultural icons in Japan.

 
Tanukis in water

Photo: feathercollector/Shutterstock

1. They are not related to raccoons

Despite their masked appearance, raccoon dogs are not closely related to raccoons. Rather, they belong to the Canidae family, alongside wolves and foxes.

The raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) is also a basal species, which means it most resembles the ancestral form of the Canidae family. So, if you're wondering what your Fido looked like several million years ago, look no further than the raccoon dog!

* * * 
 
Raccoon dog behind bars

Photo: AD-LA/Wikimedia

2. That faux fur you're wearing? It might actually be raccoon dog fur

In 2008, the Humane Society of the United States filed a false advertising claim against at least 20 U.S. retailers after finding that 70 percent of faux fur garments they analyzed actually contained raccoon dog fur.

That's not the only case. There have been multiple incidents in which clothing retailers advertised and sold merchandise containing raccoon dog fur (also known as murmansky) under the label of faux fur.

Raccoon dogs are not considered endangered at the moment, but according to Zoo Atlanta — one of only two zoos in the U.S. that exhibit the animals — "they are an example of a species that could come under threat in the future due to unsustainable activities," such as the fur trade.

* * * 
 
Raccoon dogs

Photo: 663highland

3. They take their social relationships very seriously

Companionship and family is important for these critters, so they usually live in monogamous pairs or in small, close-knit groups.

Male raccoon dogs, in particular, have an exceptional reputation for being both compassionate partners and fathers. They've been observed bringing food to their pregnant mates, and after their partner gives birth, they take an active, important role in the parenting of pups.

* * * 
 
Fluffy raccoon dog

Photo: Marie Hale/Getty Images

4. Raccoon dogs are the only canines that hibernate during the winter

While wolves, foxes and other canines have no trouble braving the snowy, barren winter months, raccoon dogs living in far north ranges prefer to hunker down. To do this, they pack on fat, decrease their metabolism by 25 percent and settle inside their burrows until warmer weather arrives.

What's especially remarkable about their hibernation habits is that they don't go it alone. Another testimonial to how important social relationships are to these creatures: raccoon dogs are communal hibernators who prefer to cuddle up to their partners when they slumber.

* * * 
 
Taxidermy tanuki

Photo: Namazu-tron

5. Raccoon dogs have a long, storied history in Japanese folklore

The subspecies of raccoon dog native to Japan is known as the tanuki. In addition to being a real animal, tanuki are also found throughout Japanese folklore as mystical, shape-shifting spirits called Bake-danuki.

Bake-danuki, which literally means "monster raccoon dog," belong to a class of Japanese spirit monsters called the yōkai. While most yōkai have a tendency for outright malevolence, the bake-danuki has shed this frightening reputation over the past few centuries in favor of a more harmless, jovial lifestyle focused on bestowing humans with good fortune and prosperity.

Today, the furry, fun-loving scamp is depicted with a bulbous belly, massive scrotum and a host of goofy facial expressions. The items he carries may vary, but it's most common to see him clutching a sake flask and a promissory note of unpaid bills.

* * * 
 
Tanuki print by Yoshitoshi

Image: Yoshitoshi

6. Yes, there's more to that part of the story

Believe it or not, the mythical tanuki's exaggerated scrotum has nothing to do with male virility or sexual over-indulgence.

The origin of this defining characteristic dates back to 19th century, when metal workers wrapped gold in tanuki skin before hammering it into gold leaf. The strength of the tanuki's skin was so great that, according to legend, a tiny piece of gold could be hammered thin enough to stretch across eight tatami mats.

Because the Japanese terms for a small ball of gold ("kin no tama") and testicles ("kintama") are so phonetically similar, the image of a tanuki with a gigantic testicular region is now associated with good fortune and stretching one's money.

* * * 
 
Tanuki statues

Photo: akaitori/Flickr

7. Ceramic bake-danuki statues are essential for any Japanese restaurant or bar

Bake-danuki represent prosperity and economic growth, so it's no surprise that Japanese businesses would want to harness that good luck.

Much like the famous Maneki-neko (commonly known to Westerners as the Japanese lucky cat), bake-danuki statues are placed at the entrances of restaurants and bars to beckon visitors. The approximate meaning of these wealth-bringing statues translates to "come in, don't be stingy."

* * * 
 
Still from Studio Ghibli's Pompoko

Photo: AD-LA/Wikimedia

8. Tanuki were the subject of a popular animated children's film

In Studio Ghibli's famous 1994 animated film "Pom Poko," a community of fun-loving, shape-shifting tanuki unite to stop human developers from razing the forest where they live.

The tanuki use industrial sabotage, magical illusions, acts of eco-terrorism and, of course, their comically large scrotums to fight back against the destruction of their habitat.

When the time came to release an English version of this classic environmental children's film, directors made several changes to cater to a more Western audience, including calling the animals "raccoons" instead of "raccoon dogs" or "tanuki." Additionally, while the overt scrotal cameos are not considered scandalous in Japanese culture, producers of the English dub version made a decision to refer to them as "pouches" instead.

* * * 
 
Catie Leary is a photo editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.