A masked bandit has been spotted in the snowy hills of Estonia in northern Europe. Though the creature might look familiar to North American readers, this is no raccoon. 

YouTube user fleur3979 is a camera trap enthusiast, and this kit had been set up in the hope of capturing badgers on film. The quirky critter you see here was an unexpected guest: it's a tanuki, also known as a "raccoon dog".

Though they resemble their American namesakes, tanukis are part of the family Canidae, which makes them more closely related to wolves and foxes than raccoons. But unlike other canids, these grey furballs bunker down for winter. It appears this one may have claimed an abandoned badger den for its upcoming hibernation.

A tanuki's metabolism slows down by about 25 percent during the time it spends below ground, but interestingly, not all of them clock out when it gets cold. Only the northernmost populations of raccoon dogs are known to hibernate, one of many reasons the species is considered an adaptive marvel. You see, tanukis aren't native to these parts – in fact, they're invasive across most of their range. 

Raccoon dogs hail from eastern Asia, but Soviet biologists released some 10,000 of them in Europe back in the early twentieth century. The plan was to harvest tanuki pelts to supplement the growing fur trade, but because the animals were so resilient, they quickly spread across a myriad of habitats outside their native range. Today, it's estimated that 110,000-120,000 raccoon dogs live in Finland alone (the autumn population, which includes the surviving young of the year, is about 320,000) – and they're still conquering new territory. 

While this European expansion might be good news for the tanukis themselves, an invasive boom like this always spells trouble for native wildlife. Scientists recently expressed concern for the future of Europe's amphibians – some of the raccoon dogs' favorite snacks. Nesting birds could be at risk too, and tanukis are also known carriers of several parasites, including the fox tapeworm. For all of these reasons, conservationists are taking steps to control local populations in countries like Sweden. (Not to mention all that noise!)

The world's tanuki takeover may have been started by the Soviet Union, but it's been given a modern boost by the pet trade. These animals are undeniably cute (though their temperament has been compared to that of a badger on sleeping pills), and escapee raccoon dogs are on the rise.

Sweden, Denmark and Norway have outlawed pet tanukis, but there is growing concern among experts that the popular trend could see the small canids reaching the UK. Ironically, back in their native range in Japan, it's trade in actual raccoons that is threatening the tanukis.



Top header image: Tim Ellis, Flickr