How smart are raccoons?  They’re probably brains, study shows

How smart are raccoons? They’re probably brains, study shows

These days, the The internet’s favorite animals are garbage-foraging creatures like rats, possums, and especially raccoons. Raccoon (Procyon lotor) are little bandits who steal our hearts, time and time again, starring in memes and breaking social media daily.

As these mammals have been upgraded from vermin to garbage can kings, their intelligence has also been recognized. Everyone loves how smart octopuses, pigs, and dogs are, but raccoons also have their own cognitive ability.

Lauren Stanton, a postdoctoral researcher studying animal cognition at the University of California, Berkeley, understands the raccoon’s appeal.

“They’re fluffy, they have these really adorable faces and round ears, they have a lot of characteristics that I think make them objectively very cute,” she says. Inverse. But she’s more taken with “how tactile they are.” The animals’ dexterous front legs that help them travel, escape, forage and hunt inspired Stanton to embrace her inner raccoon.

“Every time I feel the bottom of my backpack looking for a pen, or reach into a cabinet and try to find a mug and feel my way to find something, that seems like a very raccoon thing to do,” he says. .

He also knows that these highly memorizing animals have much more depth than we suspect, so he investigates their cognitive abilities. Most recently, she and her team published a paper in Journal of Experimental Biology This shows how a raccoon with one trait, in particular, can be associated with the cognitive abilities of these garbage pandas.

Their multi-year study in Laramie, Wyoming involved trapping, tagging, releasing and testing dozens of raccoons and showing which type of raccoon showed the most promising cognitive ability. Not only do these findings tell us which raccoons are best adapted to and thrive in human-dominated environments like cities, but they may reveal more about the adaptability of other wild animals.

A video uploaded in 2020 of a man hand-feeding dozens of wild raccoons.

What’s new – They say it’s always the quiet ones to watch out for. Stanton’s data suggest that this may be the case, at least for raccoons.

Between 2015 and 2019, Stanton and her team studied dozens of raccoons for personality traits and later cognition. The project was done in two parts.

Between 2015 and 2019, the team lured and trapped raccoons using cat food. They brought these raccoons into the lab, where they injected them 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 track pet cats and dogs.) The researchers fed the raccoons before releasing them.

This phase was not just about PIT tagging. The researchers observed each raccoon’s every movement and reaction to this stressful experience. Did the raccoons stick their limbs out of the cage? Did they go quietly to the cage? Did they voice and how? Did they accept the food and water they were given? All of these clues let the researchers know what kind of raccoon they were dealing with, and the team classified each one based on traits like boldness, aggression, docility and more. Some raccoons had such strong personalities that researchers named them Volcano or Sriracha for their cheerfulness.

Then, between 2018 and 2019, came the cognitive testing part. Stanton’s team devised what is called a Skinner box, an instrument named for the 20th-century American psychologist BF Skinner, which an animal can manipulate to influence a specific 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, then by learning how to operate it by pressing the correct button.

After watching 40 raccoons (and four skunks) interact with the box, Stanton observed a correlation between raccoons that expressed docile traits and raccoons that learned to successfully handle the box.

This dumpster-dwelling raccoon took social media by storm.

Why it matters – Raccoons and other animals have been forced to adapt to human-made spaces as more land has been developed into cities and suburbs. Understanding how raccoons learn, Stanton says, could point to a link between cognitive ability and emotional reactivity, which is especially important in volatile environments like cities.

In her research, Stanton learned that the animals’ behavior ran a spectrum from aggressive to docile. Those who were more aggressive were also more likely to be active and adventurous, exploring their environment. The milder ones were more likely to stay back longer before getting out. The link is clear in the correlation Stanton’s team found: Raccoons that were observed as docile were more likely to learn how to handle the box.

It could be that more docile raccoons are also more flexible and can more easily adapt to their environment. It wasn’t just that they learned to handle the box, for example. The raccoons received a food reward for simply approaching the box, which introduced the association. Some, however, ran at the sound of the food dispenser. Not only did the meek learn to use the technology, but they were simply stuck with an unfamiliar object.

This flexibility can be integral to survival in urban environments. Stanton says 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 that pounces at the first sight of a person will never learn that if they stuck, they would have been rewarded with a hot dog.

Raccoons use their dexterous front legs to navigate the environment and survive.Raimund Linke/Photodisc/Getty Images

Digging into the details — So how smart are raccoons? Stanton quotes dog cognition expert Brian Hare: “Asking whether one species is smarter than another is like asking whether 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 evaluate other animals, such as birds, in the past, and raccoons are now coming into vogue in field research as well as online. For this particular study, Stanton acknowledges the issue of sample size. She and her team tagged 204 raccoons, but only 40 of them engaged with the box. On the one hand, he expected that some tagged raccoons would either migrate or be lost before they could reach the box.

Cognitive tests on medium-sized mammals like raccoons are difficult, he says. But it also lays the groundwork for future research and raises questions about replicability. “Is there a real relationship between the aggression they display and their stress levels and their cognitive ability?” she says. “There’s a lot more testing that we hope to do to really validate this relationship.”

He also points out how the strongest indicator of aggression or obedience was their voices. While their other behaviors couldn’t necessarily be replicated in similar situations, Stanton found that raccoons that were most likely to snarl, hiss and snarl once would do so again, and that this behavior correlated strongly with aggression.

Raccoons are smarter than they look – especially the mildest ones, according to a study.FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images

What’s next – Laramie raccoons also participated in a study on their learning and problem-solving abilities, a study that will be released soon. In this other experiment, the littermates had to learn how to open a door in a puzzle box to get food inside. Stanton and her team then compared the performance of the successful raccoons to find any variations.

As for the four random skunks in the study, Stanton is excited that the idea applies to other mesiocarnivorous species, including the “wonderful” skunk, even if she can’t immediately include the data.

But right away, this data tells us that raccoons notice and learn from humans, too, even if they don’t meme us.

“All told, our study supports the idea that raccoon behavior can be shaped by human behavior, so as long as we are mindful of our actions, raccoons will understand what is and is not desired by humans,” Stanton says. , “and this can help promote coexistence with them.”

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