Raccoons that live in cities or suburbs seem to be more resourceful than their rural kin, according to preliminary research by Suzanne MacDonald, a psychology professor at York University near Toronto and a National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration grantee.
Case in point: MacDonald recently captured video of raccoons getting stuck in—and cleverly getting out of—a garbage can tightly secured with bungee cords in her suburban backyard. (Watch another National Geographic video on raccoons.)
The video was part of her ongoing experiments looking at the behavior of raccoons, a native North American mammal that has adapted incredibly well to living in urban environments.
City-dwelling raccoons have special challenges not found in their natural habitat, according to MacDonald: dealing with traffic, constructing den sites in man-made structures, and exploiting new resources, like garbage bins and swimming pools, for food and water.
“There’s a lot of work on behavior in wild animals and captive ones, and [my] work is somewhere in between,” she said.
We talked to MacDonald to find out what she’s learned about these clever backyard bandits.
What’s so special about raccoons? Why study them?
Raccoons are special in the way they’ve been affected by us. Lots of other wildlife lives in cities, and one of the reasons that raccoons have done so well is that they are able to eat anything. If you can eat pretty much whatever you find in a Dumpster, then you’re going to do okay.
That’s why rats do so well. While rats have been around for a really long time, raccoons are relative newcomers. We want to know if their arrival in cities has changed their behavior. (See pictures of cities and their environmental struggles.)
What types of experiments are you running?
For the first project, we put GPS collars on them to find out where they go in the urban areas and what their home ranges looked like. After that, we became interested in their little brains, comparing the behavior of urban raccoons with rural ones.
Our hypothesis is that the urban environment is shaping animals and changing them, such that the raccoons in the city are becoming smarter. (Watch: “Life as a Raccoon.”)
We’re constantly making new garbage cans and new locks, and if they want to survive, they have to figure out our stuff.
How are you testing raccoon intelligence?
I have sites all over the greater Toronto area, and I put out these motion-capture cameras that work at night, usually in somebody’s backyard. At each study site, I placed a garbage can with a top attached by a bungee cord, which a raccoon generally wouldn’t encounter in Toronto.
At the bottom of the can, I placed an open can of cat food. Then I just wait, and the cameras capture everything that happens.
What differences did you find between urban and rural raccoons?
Getting into our garbage is actually a hard problem. None of the rural raccoons were able to figure it out. Many, many raccoons tried when I tested them this summer, but none of them got in.
The food is at the bottom of the can, and a typical animal will smell the food and try to get in through the bottom where the food is. (Learn more about wildlife in your backyard on Nat Geo Wild’s Urban Jungle.)
The urban raccoons [in the video] smelled the bottom of the can, and then they immediately went to the top off the can to pry it open.
What does this tell us about the behavior of other animals we find in cities?
Humans are helping these animals evolve and are pressuring them to survive our environments. And it turns out that raccoons are just these perfect little urban warriors. (Get facts on suburban wildlife.)
Portions of this interview were edited for length and content.