Procyon is the eighth brightest star in the night sky, - but is also part of the scientific name of the raccoon (Procyon lotor). It also serves as my online pen-name, which I chose many years ago based on this interesting coincidence that one of my favorite creatures, and an example of one of the most fascinating objects in the sky, happen to share the same name. And although the name can be difficult to pronounce (PRO-see-on), I've become quite attached to it, treating it as a sort of symbolic alternate identity - a raccoon fascinated by the shining beacons of the night sky.

Procyon the Star:

In the literal translation from Greek, Procyon means "before the dog", which would seem to indicate that it rises shortly before the Dog Star, Sirius, at most latitutes. It is one of the closest bright stars to Earth at a distance of about 11 light years, and is about the only bright example of an F star (5), though the North Star Polaris and Canopus are also members of this spectral class. Closer inspection of the system reveals Procyon to actually be a double star, consisting of one ordinary star (Procyon A) and a tiny, faint white dwarf companion (Procyon B). Procyon A is a main-sequence star just beginning its evolution off the main sequence, and is often designated as belonging to evolutionary class IV-V to indicate its borderline status between dwarf and subgiant stages. Procyon B is the degenerate remnant of what was once a much larger, brighter, and hotter star that eventually shed its hydrogen envelope to leave behind the ultradense carbon-helium core. The two stars continue to orbit each other with a period of about 40 years.

Data on Procyon A: Sources: SIMBAD, KCroswell, Kaler's Stars, Filippenko et al. 2003.

Procyon the Animal:

The raccoon's species name, "lotor", refers to its habit of washing its food before eating, but why the raccoon was given the biological designation "Procyon" is unclear. The origin is though to be Greek, meaning (as in the case of the star) "before the dog", or possibly "of the dog" or "like a dog". This might appear to refer to speculation about the animal's evolutionary relationship or resemblance to the canids, but there seems to be no historical evidence for this. Nevertheless, the name stuck, and has been used since at least the 1700s when the first specimens were brought to Europe for classification.

Although they are not strictly carnivorous, raccoons are members of the Order Carnivora, and are thought to be most closely related to bears. Living procyonids include the red panda (although its classification has been questioned), kinkajou, coatis, and ringtails, and of course a large number of raccoon species, the most famous of which is the common raccoon Procyon lotor, although many other, less well-known species of raccoon exist across the Americas.

Raccoons are highly omnivorous creatures, and feed off a wide variety of foods including nuts, berries, fruit, and to some extent invertebrate and vertebrate prey. They are active mostly at night, and operate mostly alone rather than in large social groups, with the exception of the mother and her young. Raccoons mate in winter or early spring and generally give birth to one litter per year after a gestation period of about two months; parental care is normally provided solely by the mother and lasts about a year before offspring achieve independence and sexual maturity. Raccoons can live for up to 20 years in captivity, but in their natural environment rarely survive more than a few years.

After their numbers were heavily depleted by trapping during the 19th century, raccoons have made a remarkable comeback, largely due to their high intelligence and adaptability to urban habitats. Raccoons range all over North America except for the Arctic (and introduced populations now exist in large areas of Europe as well), ranging across a tremendous variety of habitats and climatic zones. Clever and adaptable, raccoons are one of the most successful mammalian species in the world.

Data on Procyon lotor: Sources: Michigan Animal Diversity Web, BigZoo, Zeveloff 2002.