Docile raccoons are better dumpster divers and more suited to cities
Some people are more suited to cities than others, and it turns out the same is true of animals. In reality, recent search in the Journal of Experimental Biology suggests that an animal’s temperament affects its ability to utilize the many shelter and food sources contained in urban and suburban areas.
Specifically, the study suggests that docile and timid raccoons are actually the best at taking advantage of the conveniences cities provide, and that includes their abundance of trash cans and dumpsters, filled to the brim with food.
Of course, cities attract people as well as creatures. Pigeons, mice, rats and raccoons all flock to these spaces in an effort to ensure constant sources of shelter and food. But what, precisely, makes an animal suitable for living in the city?
“Several cognitive abilities have been proposed as particularly important,” says Lauren Stanton, a biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, in a Press release.
Biologists tend to agree that learning and adaptive skills are valuable for just about any animal in the city. But they still don’t understand what makes some species and individuals as successful city dwellers as others.
Wanting to find out what makes raccoons, in particular, such savvy locals, Stanton and a team of researchers found that shy, docile raccoons are the best at adapting to the city and its changes. And they are better at penetrating objects such as garbage cans in search of food.
These findings, say Stanton and the team, do more than provide insight into the temperament and behavior of urban and suburban animals. They can also affect animal management strategies for years and years to come.
To determine whether bold raccoons or timid raccoons better take advantage of city opportunities, researchers began by distinguishing between the two types of individuals in the wild. To do this, they set food-filled traps all over the town of Laramie, Wyoming and caught about 200 animals. They then tested whether the trapped raccoons tended to behave boldly or timidly before inserting ID tags into their shoulders and releasing them into the city.
With this baseline assessment of animal temperaments, the team then tested the raccoons’ abilities to adjust and adapt to their environment. Researchers placed raccoon-sized boxes with two buttons all over Laramie. They then observed several raccoons climb inside the trash can-like containers and press the appropriate button to produce a food reward.
According to the team, once the raccoons learned how to enter the box and get their treat, their task only got more complicated. The buttons were eventually swapped to test if the raccoons could overcome an additional challenge.
Finally, after two years of testing, 27 raccoons were able to enter the box, 19 were able to get their treat, and 17 were able to press the second button when the first button failed to produce a reward.
The following analysis of raccoon identities indicated that younger animals were more eager to explore containers, while older animals were more willing to change strategy once buttons were exchanged. More interestingly, the analysis also revealed that shy and docile raccoons navigated the boxes the best, “suggesting a potential relationship between emotional reactivity and cognitive ability,” Stanton says in a press release.
Ultimately, in addition to shedding light on urban and suburban wildlife activity, Stanton and the team say their findings could also improve strategies for dealing with troublesome raccoons, adept at getting into trash cans. In fact, the results suggest that relocating shy and docile raccoons may be the best strategy for resolving human-raccoon conflict.