These days the The internet’s favorite animals are trash-eating creatures like rats, opossums, and especially raccoons. raccoons (procyon lotor) are little bandits who steal our hearts, over and over again, starring in memes and breaking social networks on a daily basis.
As these mammals have gone from pests to garbage can kings, their intelligence is also getting some recognition. Everyone loves how smart octopuses, pigs, and dogs are, but raccoons have their own cognitive prowess, too.
Lauren Stanton, a postdoctoral researcher studying animal cognition at the University of California, Berkeley, understands the raccoon’s appeal.
“They’re fluffy, they have really adorable faces and round ears, they have a lot of features that I think make them objectively cute,” he says. Reverse. But what he likes the most is “how tactile they are.” The animals’ dexterous front legs that help them travel, escape, feed and hunt inspired Stanton to embrace the raccoon within him.
“Every time I reach into the bottom of my backpack for a pen, or reach into a cupboard and try to find a mug, and fumble my way to find something, that looks like a raccoon to me. what to do,” she says.
He also knows that these highly memeable animals have much more depth than we suspect, which is why he investigates their cognitive abilities. More recently, she and her team published an article in the Journal of Experimental Biology that shows how a raccoon with a particular trait can be associated with the cognitive abilities of these trash pandas.
Their multi-year study in Laramie, Wyoming, involved trapping, tagging, releasing and testing dozens of raccoons, and shows which type of raccoon showed the most promising cognition. Not only do these findings tell us which raccoons best adapt and thrive in human-dominated environments like cities, they may also reveal more about the adaptability of other wildlife.
A video uploaded in 2020 of a man hand-feeding dozens of wild raccoons.
What’s new – They say you always have to be careful with the silent ones. Stanton’s data shows that could be true, at least for raccoons.
Between 2015 and 2019, Stanton and his team studied dozens of raccoons for personality traits and then cognition. The work came in two parts.
Between 2015 and 2019, the team lured and trapped raccoons with cat food. They took these raccoons to the lab, where they were injected with a passive integrated transponder (PIT) tag to identify the animals via radio frequency identification (RFID) once they were released. (PIT tags are also used to identify domestic cats and dogs.) The researchers fed the raccoons before abandoning them.
This phase was not just about PIT labeling. The researchers observed every movement and response of each raccoon in this stressful experience. Did the raccoons stick their limbs out of the cage? Did they stay quiet in the cage? Did they vocalize and how? Did they accept the food and water they were given? All of these clues let the researchers know what type of raccoon they were dealing with, and the team classified each one based on traits like boldness, aggressiveness, tameness, and more. Some raccoons had such strong personalities that researchers named them Volcano or Sriracha for their combativeness.
Then, between 2018 and 2019, came the cognitive testing part. Stanton’s team devised what’s called a Skinner box, an instrument named for 20th-century American psychologist BF Skinner that an animal can manipulate to influence a particular outcome. This particular Skinner box had two buttons and contained dog food. There were two ways the raccoons could obtain food: first by simply approaching the box, and then learning to operate it by pressing the correct button.
After watching 40 raccoons (and four skunks) interact with the box, Stanton observed a correlation between the raccoons that expressed docile traits and the raccoons that successfully learned to operate the box.
This dumpster-dwelling raccoon took social media by storm.
Why does it matter? Raccoons and other animals have been forced to adapt to anthropogenic spaces as more land has been converted to cities and suburbs. Understanding how raccoons learn, Stanton says, could indicate a link between cognition and emotional reactivity, which is particularly relevant in volatile environments like cities.
In his research, Stanton learned that animal behavior ranged from aggressive to docile. Those who were more aggressive were also more likely to be active and bold, exploring their surroundings. The meekest were more likely to stay behind for a longer period of time before venturing out. The link seems clear in the correlation Stanton’s team found: Raccoons that were observed to be docile were more likely to learn to operate the box.
It could be that the more docile raccoons are also more flexible and can more easily adapt to their environment. It wasn’t just that they learned to operate the box, for example. The raccoons received a food reward for simply approaching the box, which introduced them to the association. Some, however, ran away at the sound of the food dispenser. The meekest not only learned to use the technology, but were simply left with an unknown object.
This flexibility can be integral to surviving in urban environments. Stanton says that some theories hold that cities select for what she calls “reactive cognitive phenotypes,” which are docile creatures that may be less reactive and more tolerant of humans. An aggressive raccoon who bolts at the first sight of a person will never know that, had he stayed, he would have been rewarded with hot dogs.
Delving into the details – So how smart are raccoons? Stanton quotes canine cognition expert Brian Hare: “Asking if one species is smarter than another is like asking if a hammer is a better tool than a screwdriver.” Everyone can learn and adapt in different ways, depending on the tools they have.
Researchers have used Skinner boxes to assess other animals, such as birds, in the past, and raccoons are now catching on in fieldwork as well as on the Internet. For this particular study, Stanton acknowledges the problem of sample size. She and her team tagged 204 raccoons, but only 40 of them interacted with the box. She, for one thing, anticipated that some tagged raccoons would migrate or perish before they could reach the box.
Cognitive tests in medium-sized mammals like raccoons get tricky, she says. But she also lays the groundwork for future research and raises questions of replicability. “Is there a real relationship between the aggression that you are displaying and your stress levels and your cognitive ability?” she says. “There’s a lot more testing that hopefully we’ll do to really validate that relationship.”
He also points out how the strongest indicator of aggression or tameness was their vocalizations. While his other behaviors might not necessarily be replicated in similar instances, Stanton found that raccoons that were more likely to growl, hiss, and growl once will likely do so again, and that this behavior correlates strongly with aggressiveness.
Whats Next – Laramie’s raccoons also participated in a study on their learning and problem-solving abilities, a study coming out soon. In this other experiment, the litter puppies had to learn how to open a door in a puzzle box to get food inside. Stanton and his team then compared the performance of successful raccoons to find variations.
As for the four accidental skunks that joined the study, Stanton is thrilled that the concept applies to other mesocarnivore species, including the “fabulous” skunk, even if she can’t include the data right away.
But more immediately, this data tells us that raccoons also observe and learn from humans, even if they’re not making us memes.
“All to say, our study supports the idea that human behavior can shape raccoon behavior, so as long as we are aware of our actions, raccoons will figure out what humans want or don’t want,” says Stanton, ” and this can help promote coexistence with them”.