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How smart are raccoons? A UBC study hopes to find out by running an experiment in your backyard

This photo shows two raccoons in a backyard. Credit: UBC/Hannah Griebling. This photo shows two raccoons in a backyard. Credit: UBC/Hannah Griebling.

Researchers at UBC are looking to learn more about how raccoons' brains work, and are hoping Vancouver residents will volunteer to turn their yards into de facto labs.

Dr. Sarah Benson-Amram, a professor in the departments of forestry and conservation science, says even though the crafty critters are a common sight in cities, very little research has been done to understand their cognitive abilities.

"We have wildlife living in our backyards. But shockingly, we actually don't know that much about them – raccoons in particular,” she tells CTV News.

"They're very cute. We think they're very smart, but they're a very under-studied species."

More study of how the animals learn, Benson-Amran says, could lead to the development of better strategies for reducing conflict between humans and urban wildlife. Further, it could shed some light on what it is about these animals that has enabled them to survive and thrive in North American cities.

Studying urban wildlife and how they interact with, adapt to and learn from their environment can't be done in a lab, Benson Amran says, explaining why the team needs access to people's yards to run their experiments. While it may be unconventional, she stresses that it is safe for animals and humans alike.

"This study is something that's been heavily peer-reviewed and vetted. We have all the permits, we're doing all of this with the raccoons' welfare at the forefront of our minds. Everything that we're doing, we're doing very carefully with a lot of thought so as to not cause any injury or damage to these animals,' she explains.

"We're trying to interfere with them as little as possible while still being able to get some data."

The experiments do use food as a reward, but Benson-Amran says the amount is small enough and the tests are short-term enough that the raccoons won't come to rely on being fed after the study is complete.

"It's a couple of pieces of dog kibble. They don't stick around once the tasks are over, they don't keep coming back and searching for them," she says, adding that the total amount of time involved wouldn’t be longer than a couple of weeks.

The first step of the research involves humanely trapping the raccoon, sedating it, and tagging it with a microchip similar to the kind used to track cats and dogs. The food-pellet dispensing devices in the yards are equipped with sensors that can recognize the microchip. This means raccoons without the chip can’t access the food and also that the ones with the chips will have their intake capped.

"Our overarching goal for this project is to really try to understand why some species are able to survive and even thrive in urban environments, whereas others aren't, and also how living in a city might be changing the behavior, the ecology and the cognition of urban wildlife," Benson-Amran says.

The devices are designed to test several types of cognition: spatial memory, the ability to tell the difference between two different things, the ability to change behaviour in response to changing stimuli, and the ability to curb or control behaviour.

One of the potential benefits of the research, Benson-Amran hopes, will be finding non-lethal ways to reduce conflict between humans and raccoons, knowing more about how the animals learn and adapt will ideally lead to more effective, finely-tuned interventions.

"Animals are learning their way around some of the strategies that we have. And so our hope is that if we understand more about how raccoons learns, then we can design more effective strategies," she says.

"If anyone's interested in living alongside raccoons but reducing the challenges associated with that, hopefully, they'll be excited."

Ideally, the team is hoping to be able to run their experiment in between 100 and 200 yards.

Those who are interested in volunteering can email Top Stories

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