(p. D3) Despite their reputation, little is known about why raccoons are so good at urban living.
Over the past few years, researchers have taken to the streets of Laramie, Wyo., to uncover the raccoons’ secrets, adapting a cognitive test designed for captive animals so that it can be deployed in the wild.
Preliminary findings suggest that the most docile animals learned to use the testing devices more easily than bolder, more aggressive ones did, a result that has implications for our relationship with urban wildlife. The study was published on Thursday [Sept. 22, 2022] in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
. . .
Dr. Stanton’s team . . . wanted to know if certain characteristics made a raccoon more likely to excel on the test. They noted each animal’s behavior throughout the trapping and tagging process and found that individual raccoons reacted differently to the stress of being captured: Some were aggressive, hissing at the researchers, whereas others were quiet in their traps.
The scientists had expected that bolder raccoons would be more likely to interact with the testing devices. “But this isn’t what we found,” Dr. Stanton said.
Instead, the docile raccoons were more likely to learn how the devices work. The surprising discovery has implications for how cities deal with raccoons.
Urban wildlife management tends to focus on aggressive animals that may be confronting people and their pets, noted Sarah Benson-Amram, a behavioral ecologist at the University of British Columbia and a co-author of the study. By neglecting the docile animals, we may be increasing the proportion of problem-solving raccoons living in cities.
“Maybe they’re the ones who are learning how to open up the chicken coops and steal your chickens or break into your attic,” Dr. Benson-Amram said.
The results of the study add to a growing body of research suggesting animals that aren’t as aggressive or stressed by the presence of people may also have cognitive skills that help them thrive in urban areas.
“This is perhaps the first step towards domestication,” said Benjamin Geffroy, a biologist at the University of Montpellier in France. “Now we need to know more about what comes first, docility or cognitive abilities.”
. . .
Working with captive raccoons has convinced Dr. Benson-Amram that they actually enjoy cognitive challenges. “We give them problems, and even when there’s no reward, they just keep going for it,” she said.
Raccoons in urban environments can also be remarkably persistent, said Suzanne MacDonald, an animal behavior scientist at York University in Toronto. For one study, she put an open can of cat food in a trash bin, secured the lid with a bungee cord and deployed it in backyards to see how raccoons would react.
“I had one female spend like eight hours trying to get in,” Dr. MacDonald said. “And she did.”
For the full story, see:
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version has the date Sept. 22, 2022, and has the title “Shy Raccoons Are Better Learners Than Bold Ones, Study Finds.”)
The article in the Journal of Experimental Biology mentioned above is:
Stanton, Lauren A., Eli S. Bridge, Joost Huizinga, and Sarah Benson-Amram. “Environmental, Individual and Social Traits of Free-Ranging Raccoons Influence Performance in Cognitive Testing.” Journal of Experimental Biology 225, no. 18 (2022) DOI: 10.1242/jeb.243726.