The humble raccoon was practically built for a life of crime, having developed a bandit mask to give the Hamburglar a run for their money. Famous for raiding containers and robbing banks, these animals are well-versed in navigating city life, but new research has found that when it comes to catching the most criminal culprits, it’s not the bold raccoons of the ones you need to worry about.
Wanting to get into the mind of a non-human heist artist living in the city, researcher Lauren Stanton from the University of California, Berkeley, USA, went in search of raccoons. Through her research, she hoped to pin down the cognitive abilities that are useful to urban wildlife and determine whether they are correlated with specific types of behavior.
Using live traps baited with cat food, Stanton and his colleagues were able to humanely capture raccoons living in the town of Laramie, Wyoming. The fluffy bandits were transported back to their lab and given a health check before assessing how feisty or docile they seemed.
Temperatures and temperaments taken; Each raccoon was injected between its shoulder blades with a miniature radio-frequency identification tag so the team could track each individual’s movements. They were then allowed to return to their home territories, but science was not done with them yet.
The researchers placed more humane traps that, by appealing to the raccoon’s thieving nature, could indicate its impulsiveness by telling the team how many times each raccoon was caught. For four years they monitored 204 raccoons in this way, and then came the real challenge.
The raccoons were invited to adopt their own version of The cube, they were presented with a box inside which they were tasked with completing a challenge to win dog treats. The ability? The ability to hit the right switch. If you’re thinking “that sounds awfully simple”, remember: we’re talking about raccoons.
An unintended consequence of the raccoon challenge pods was the false assumption that they would attend in an organized fashion. Sometimes the popularity of raccoon boxes infuriated them more than a box of frogs when multiple animals banged and shook the container while one poor animal tried to solve the task.
Fortunately, not every test session turned into complete chaos and the team was still able to collect data on which animals were the quickest to figure it out. Then, to further test their cognitive abilities, the researchers flipped the switch that released the reward.
The results revealed that after two years, 27 raccoons had mastered El Cubo. Of the attendees, 19 figured out which switch would give them delicious cookies, and 17 navigated by flipping the switches. Finally, the big reveal came…
When comparing the masterminds of The Cube with their emotional temperaments, it seemed that the calmest raccoons were the most cunning. This, says Stanton, could suggest that raccoons’ cognitive abilities are linked to emotional reactivity.
It could also indicate that when it comes to keeping these fluffy bandits out of bins and banks, going after the more brazen and daring raccoons could make matters worse, as you leave the calm and collected real criminal masterminds behind.
As they say, they are always the ones you least expect.
The article is published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.