The residents of almost any city in North America know how frustratingly clever the animal can be. They break into the garage and steal bird feeders and trash bins.

It's not known why raccoons are so good at urban living.

In the past few years, researchers have taken to the streets of Laramie, Wyo., to uncover the secrets of the raccoons, adapting a cognitive test designed for captive animals so that it can be used in the wild.

Preliminary findings show that the most docile animals learned to use the testing devices more easily than the bolder, more aggressive ones. The study was published in a scientific journal.

The questions of which animals will be able to deal with the sprawl and why are becoming more urgent as the planet is increasingly urbanized. The answers might point to better ways to manage animals as they are forced to share more of their habitat with us.

Lauren Stanton, a cognitive ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, is the lead author of a new study.

Animals deal with a lot of pressures in their natural environment. Raccoons have to acquire food, avoid predators and cars, find mates, raise kits and navigate social landscapes that include both humans and other animals.

It is difficult to duplicate that in a captive setting.

Most of the work done on how raccoon think has been done in captivity. A classic learning test was used to get better insight into the animal's real-world behavior. Only one of the two options will result in a food reward if you press one of the buttons.

The task is reversed when the animal learns to press the reward button. The scientists want to know how quickly animals pick up a change.

The home of the University of Wyoming and a city of around 32,000 people were the places where the researchers tested the cognitive flexibility of wild raccoons.

ImageLauren Stanton, the study’s lead author, released a raccoon after it was implanted with a transponder.
Lauren Stanton, the study’s lead author, released a raccoon after it was implanted with a transponder.Credit...Stanton et al., Journal of Experimental Biology, 2022
Lauren Stanton, the study’s lead author, released a raccoon after it was implanted with a transponder.

The scientists trapped 204 raccoons that were roaming in backyards, alleys and parks across the city and set them free after implanting tiny transponders. They put the wooden boxes, each with two large buttons, a food chute, a small computer, and night-vision cameras, in a place where the raccoons like to hang out.

It took two years for 40 of the tagged animals to be detected. Nineteen of them were able to push the buttons to get food rewards and 17 of them were involved in reversal trials.

The data for seven of them was not usable due to the interference of other animals. Two would squeeze in at the same time and the other would push them out in the middle of the trial. Chive was doing well on the task until she suddenly stopped performing. She showed up with a lot of kit. The babies walked all over the buttons and created chaos inside the device.

Data for 10 raccoons was included in the analysis. Each time the reward button was changed, seven of them improved.

Brian Hare is an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University who was not involved in the study.

The deer who visit the compost pile outside the window of my suburban home probably aren't surprised by this result.

The team wanted to know if certain characteristics made a animal more likely to excel. They noted each animal's behavior throughout the trapping and tagging process and found that some were aggressive, hissing at the researchers, while others were quiet in their traps.

This isn't what we found.

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It took two years, but the boxes eventually detected 40 tagged raccoons, 17 of which participated in multiple reversal trials. Sometimes, other animals snuck in. Video by Stanton et al., Journal of Experimental Biology 2022

The animal was more likely to learn how the devices worked. It has implications for how cities deal with animals.

A co-author of the study said that urban wildlife management tends to focus on aggressive animals that may be confronting people and their pets. We may be increasing the number of problem-solvers in the city by neglecting the docile animals.

They may be the ones who are learning how to break into your house and steal your chickens.

A growing body of research suggests that animals that aren't as aggressive or stressed by the presence of people can thrive in urban areas.

Benjamin Geffroy is a Biologist at the University of Montpellier in France. We need to know more about cognitive abilities.

The process of domestication may change the way animals think. Dogs are better at following human gestures than wolves or non human primate.

This doesn't mean that the animal will be reading our gestures in the near future. People need to better understand how animals think in order to avoid conflicts with them, if they are evolving to exploit our presence.

It could be difficult to catch a Raccoon. Dr. Benson-Amram believes they enjoy cognitive challenges when working with captive animals. She said they keep going for it even when there is no reward.

Suzanne MacDonald is an animal behavior scientist at York University. She put an open can of cat food in a trash bin, secured the lid with a bungee cord and put it in the backyard to see how the animals would react.

One woman spent eight hours trying to get in. She did.

Humans are the ones who invaded their land, according to Dr. MacDonald.

She said that the guys have figured out how to live with them. Our giant cortexes can be used to figure out a way to live with them.

BetsyMason is a journalist and a fellow.