It's probably not a bold raccoon getting into your trash. Video from a new study suggests calm raccoons are better problem-solvers.

A raccoon inside the experimental cubicle.
A raccoon inside the experimental cubicle.Lauren Stanton
  • Calm, passive raccoons adapt better to city environments, a study published Thursday suggests.

  • Researchers studied 204 wild raccoons for two years, to test whether they could push a button for a reward.

  • The results could help inform how wildlife managers deal with urban raccoons.

Raccoons are beloved and bemoaned for rummaging through city garbage. Now, researchers say one quality has allowed certain raccoons thrive in cities: how calmly they responded to new situations.

In a study published Thursday in the Journal of Experimental Biology, researchers explored how adaptable these mischievous mammals are. The research team, led by Lauren Stanton from the University of California, Berkeley, tagged 204 wild raccoons living in the city of Laramie, Wyoming, by luring them with pet food between August 2015 and September 2019.

Over two years of observations, researchers tested whether raccoons were able to locate a raccoon-sized cubicle in their neighborhood with two buttons inside it. When pressed, one button released a handful of dog treats. The other released nothing. The furry omnivores had initial misgivings about the cubicle, researchers wrote.

A racoon depressing a button that it has learned will provide a dog food reward.
A raccoon presses a button it has learned will provide a dog food reward.Lauren Stanton

After learning to climb into the cubicle for treats, researchers switched things up by changing which button released the edible reward.

Scientists believe the ability to solve problems in novel situations, using reason and thinking, is particularly important for urban wildlife, Stanton said in a press release.

After two years, researchers found that 27 raccoons got the hang of visiting the cubicle and 19 figured out which button was a reward. Of those observed, 17 realized that the reward button had been changed.

Interestingly, when Stanton's team observed the animals' temperaments, they found that the least bold raccoons were best prepared to operate the treat-delivering mechanism. That "suggests a potential relationship between emotional reactivity and cognitive ability in raccoons," Stanton said.

Movie of a raccoon inside the raccoon experimental cubicle, after learning how to successfully depress the correct button to release a dog food reward.
A raccoon inside the cubicle after learning how to press the correct button to release a dog food reward.Lauren Stanton

According to researchers, the youngest raccoons seemed most eager to enter and explore the cubicle. But when researchers switched the buttons, adult raccoons were better prepared to overcome the challenge. That could be because young raccoons' cognitive abilities are less developed, but the sample size was too small to draw conclusions, researchers wrote in the study.

The cubicle itself became a happening spot for raccoons, with several of them simultaneously climbing in and bumping into each other.

A skunk exploring the cubicle.
A skunk explores the cubicle.Lauren Stanton

Throughout the observation period, the cubicle camera caught other furry visitors, including four striped skunks, like the one in the video above.

Stanton and her team hope her results can better inform wildlife managers dealing with urban raccoons, as the calmest — not the boldest —may be the most likely to cause trouble.

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