Some people are better suited to cities than others, and it turns out the same goes for animals. In fact, recent studies in Journal of Experimental Biology suggests that an animal’s temperament influences its ability to take advantage of the abundant sources of shelter and food contained in urban and suburban areas.
Specifically, the study suggests that docile, timid raccoons are actually the best at taking advantage of the amenities that cities provide, and that includes the abundance of garbage cans and containers filled to the brim with food.
Of course, cities attract both people and creatures. Pigeons, mice, rats, and raccoons flock to these spaces in an attempt to secure constant sources of shelter and food. But what exactly makes an animal suitable for living in the city?
“Several cognitive abilities have been suggested as particularly important,” says Lauren Stanton, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, in press release.
Biologists tend to agree that the ability to learn and adapt is valuable for almost any animal in the city. But they still don’t understand what makes certain species and specific individuals such successful city dwellers compared to others.
Wanting to understand what makes raccoons, in particular, such savvy residents, Stanton and a team of researchers found that timid, docile raccoons are the best at adapting to the city and its changes. And they’re better at smashing through objects like trash cans in search of food.
These findings, Stanton and team say, do more than provide insight into the temperament and behavior of urban and suburban animals. They may also influence animal management strategies for years and years to come.
Adaptability of a raccoon
To determine whether bold raccoons or timid raccoons take better advantage of the city’s opportunities, the researchers began by distinguishing between the two types of individuals in the wild. To do this, they set traps full of food throughout the town of Laramie, Wyoming, and caught about 200 animals. They then tested whether the captured raccoons tended to behave bravely or timidly before placing identification tags on their shoulders and releasing them back into the city.
With this basic assessment of the animals’ temperament, the team then tested the raccoons’ abilities to adjust and adapt to their surroundings. Researchers placed raccoon-sized boxes with two buttons throughout Laramie. They then watch as several raccoons climb into the garbage can-like containers and press the appropriate button to receive a food reward.
According to the team, once the raccoons learned how to get into the box and get their treat, their task only became more difficult. Eventually, the buttons were swapped to see if the raccoons could overcome an additional challenge.
Finally, after two years of testing, 27 raccoons could enter the box, 19 could get their treat, and 17 could press the second button when the first button failed to produce a reward.
The following analysis of raccoon identity showed that younger animals were more eager to explore the containers, while older animals were more likely to change their strategies after the buttons were switched. Even more interestingly, the analysis also revealed that timid, docile raccoons navigated best in boxes, “suggesting a potential link between emotional reactivity and cognitive abilities,” Stanton said in a press release.
Ultimately, in addition to shedding light on the activities of urban and suburban wildlife, Stanton and team say their findings may also improve management strategies for pesky trash-savvy raccoons. In fact, the findings suggest that relocating timid, docile raccoons may be the best strategy for resolving human-raccoon conflicts.