Docile raccoons are super-learners and likely criminal masterminds from the trash can
Bustling with exciting urban possibilities, cities don’t just appeal to human residents. Many creatures like to share human settlements and feast on easy tufts. But what makes some creatures better suited for life in the urban fast lane?
“Various cognitive skills have been suggested as particularly important to urban wildlife,” said Lauren Stanton of the University of California, Berkeley, USA, including learning from situations and adapting to change. But no one had pinpointed how a particularly successful urban settler, the raccoon, has taken North American cities by storm.
While studying for her Ph.D. with Sarah Benson-Amram at the University of Wyoming, USA, Stanton, with Eli Bridge (University of Oklahoma, USA) and Joost Huizinga (OpenAI, USA), embarked on an ambitious program to imagine in the minds of urban mammals what a great city dweller. The team has published their discovery that the least daring and most docile animals are the best learners in Journal of Experimental Biologyand suggest targeting the boldest raccoons when there’s human conflict could exacerbate the problem, as the most docile animals left are likely to be the real-life criminal masterminds raiding garbage cans.
“We used live cat food traps to humanely capture raccoons that live in the town of Laramie, Wyoming,” said Stanton, who then transported the animals to the lab to assess their health and how feisty or docile they were. She then injected a small radiofrequency ID tag between the animals’ shoulder blades to identify them individually before returning the animals to their home range, tracking their impulsivity by re-recording each time a person fell into a trap.
After tagging 204 raccoons between August 2015 and September 2019, Stanton and the team then tested how well the wild raccoons learned and adapted to change by locating a raccoon-sized cubicle near the animals, equipped with two buttons: one yielding a handful of tasty dog food treats when pressed, and a second yielding nothing.
However, once each raccoon had overcome their doubts and learned to climb into the cabin and get their edible reward, the team switched roles with the animals, switching which button dispensed the dog food reward, to find out how fast the raccoons were. the Change. However, Stanton admits that she and her colleagues hadn’t considered how popular the raccoon booth would be, with several animals often trying to squeeze in at the same time, bumping and distracting the raccoon against the console as it tried to get its dog food treat.
After two patient years, 27 raccoons learned to visit the booth, 19 learned how to press the buttons to get themselves rewards, and 17 realized they had to push the other button when the team told them to do so. tried to outsmart. Initially, the youngest raccoons seemed the most eager to explore the experimental cabin; however, the adults were better prepared for adversity when the researchers swapped out the console buttons. And when they checked the animals’ temperaments, the least audacious and most docile raccoons seemed the best prepared to learn how to operate the console, “suggesting a possible relationship between emotional reactivity and cognitive abilities in raccoons,” Stanton says.
However, when the researchers compared how the raccoons in the suburbs of Laramie coped with the wild raccoons trying their paws in a peaceful lab, the captive animals seemed to pick up the test more easily,” probably because there were more distractions and interruptions. while testing in the natural conditions,” says Stanton.
The team is eager to see conservationists dealing with troublesome urban raccoons learn from their experience and warn that chasing more proactive, courageous individuals can exacerbate problems, as the calmer, more docile individuals left can be the real criminal masterminds.
Raccoons solve an age-old puzzle, but do they really understand it?
Environmental, individual and social characteristics of free-ranging raccoons affect performance on cognitive tests, Journal of Experimental Biology (2022). DOI: 10.1242/jeb.244806
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