UW Raccoon Research links temperament to ability to learn | News

September 23, 2022


Lauren Stanton led research on raccoons between August 2015 and September 2019 as a graduate student at the University of Washington. (UW photo)

The results of a four-year University of Wyoming research project involving hundreds of Laramie raccoons have been published, providing new insights into how wildlife is adapting to change in urban areas.

The findings appeared in the Journal of Experimental Biology, and linked a raccoon’s temperament to its ability to learn how to obtain food.

The research was conducted between August 2015 and September 2019 by UW Ph.D. Student Lauren Stanton, now a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley; her advisor, Sarah Benson Amram, now a faculty member at the University of British Columbia – Vancouver; Eli Bridge from the University of Oklahoma; and UW Ph.D. Student Joost Huizinga, now works for OpenAI.

The researchers used live traps with cat food to humanely capture the raccoons living in Laramie, says Stanton, who then took the animals to a lab to assess their health and how distressed or docile you might feel. Next, Stanton injected a small radio frequency identification tag between the animals’ shoulder blades to identify them individually before returning the animals to their native territory, tracking their impulse by recording each time the individual ended up in a trap again.

After tagging 204 raccoons between August 2015 and September 2019, Stanton and the team tested how well wild raccoons learned and adapted to change by locating a raccoon-sized cabin in the animal’s neighborhood, equipped with two buttons: one that released handfuls of delicious dog food when pressed and the second no offer something. However, once each raccoon had overcome their fears and learned to climb inside the cabin and receive their edible reward, the team turned the tables on the animals, toggling the button that dispenses the dog’s food reward to see how quickly the raccoon detects the change. .

Stanton admits that she and her colleagues did not take into account the popularity of the raccoon cabin, where several animals often try to flock inside at once, bumping into and distracting a raccoon at the console while trying to get their dogs food.

Two years later, 27 raccoons got suspended from visiting the cabin, with 19 of them figuring out how to press buttons to provide themselves with rewards and 17 realizing they had to press the other button when the team tried to beat them.

At first, the youngest raccoons seemed the most eager to explore the experimental cabin; However, adults were more prepared for adversity when the researchers switched console buttons. And when they examined the animals’ temperaments, raccoons that were less bold and more docile seemed to be better prepared to learn how to operate the console, “suggesting a possible relationship between emotional reactivity and cognitive ability in raccoons,” says Stanton.

However, when the researchers compared how the Laramie raccoons handled, compared to wild raccoons that tried their feet in a quiet lab, the captive animals seemed to pick up the test more easily. This is likely because there are more distractions and interruptions during testing under normal conditions, Stanton says.

The researchers would like to see wildlife managers who deal with pesky urban raccoons learn from their experience, warning that going after more proactive and bold individuals may exacerbate problems, as quieter, more docile individuals may be the real criminal masterminds.

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