From Pests To Puzzle Solvers, Scientists Study Laramie's Raccoons

Sep 16, 2016


It’s a dark and damp Sunday morning in Laramie, and University of Wyoming Raccoon Project team members are climbing out of a big truck on the south end of town. 

Undergraduate student Emily Davis puts on a headlamp and speaks into a video camera to document the day’s work.

“It’s 5:40 on August 21st and we’re trapping Davis Trap One.”

Three members of the team walk up to a fence where a trap is hidden beneath brush and planks. Inside is what they’ve been hoping for: a big, fat, bandit-eyed raccoon.

Rachel Fanelli, one of the team members, says he looks like is a new capture.

“I don’t see any ear tags which would be obviously an identifiable marker for us that we had caught it before.”

This is the first trapped raccoon they have found this morning, but by the time the sun comes up the women will have walked through fields, jumped over creeks, and, of course, frequented the public library dumpsters to retrieve six trapped raccoons.

In addition to the raccoons, they will find and release skunks, a mink, and one very unhappy cat that accidentally ended up in the traps.

All of this is done in the name of science. The University of Wyoming Raccoon Project is looking to reveal more about the nocturnal creatures, like how smart they are, where they live, and their social behavior.

“I was really intrigued by the possibility of studying raccoons,” says project director Sarah Benson-Amram, who studies animal social behavior and intelligence.

“They’re anecdotally thought to be quite clever, but there’s actually very little experimental work that’s been done on raccoons. So scientifically we don’t actually know that much about their intelligence.”

Scientists do know raccoons live in urban areas, can survive in many different environments, and, Benson-Amram says, they tend to be an invasive species.

“And so all of these things point to the fact that they’re likely to be potentially quite smart but we need to study that to know for sure.”

In 2015, the project launched, and University of Wyoming students began setting up trail cams and trapping raccoons.

Lauren Stanton, a PhD student on the project, says a compelling reason to conduct the project in Laramie is that this population could be particularly interesting.

“There actually has been some evidence that shows that animals that live in harsher environments, as well as animals that occupy high elevations, actually have advanced cognitive abilities than even members of the same species living at lower elevations or in more mild environments.”

To test that theory, they need to get their hands on a few of these high elevation animals. So once the team has gathered the six trapped raccoons this morning, they take them to the Red Buttes research facility a few miles south of town. They bring all the traps inside and sedate the animals one at a time so they can be examined and collared. They start with the first one they trapped that day.

The team weighs the animal, takes some blood, and then Rachel Fanelli snips off some of his whiskers.

“We take whisker samples because this allows us to do stable isotope analyses with it, and we’re able to determine what they’re actually eating,” says Fanelli.

There are other ways to figure out what they’re eating, too.

“I was taking a fecal sample and there were whole berries in his feces,” says Stanton.

While the team gets a collar ready so the animal can be tracked, some of the other raccoons waiting to be processed start making a fuss. They call out in high, trembling tones. PhD student Lauren Stanton says they might be stressed.

“I think it’s just a little contact call. They’re calling out to see where their buds are,” says Stanton.

Back in the examination room, the raccoon is also fitted with a tracking device, similar to the microchips many pets have. One of the reasons they do this is to see which animals can solve puzzle boxes.

Puzzle boxes are pretty much what they sound like - a big box with a piece of food inside, and the raccoons have to figure out how to get it open. If a previously captured individual solves the box, that information is recorded.

Stanton says the young raccoons that are fussing right now have a mom who has solved a puzzle box in Stanton’s backyard – and now the mother teaching her kits to solve it, too.

“So mom knows how to do it, at least two of the kits know how to do it. So I want to figure out which ones they are so when they disperse and when we run studies in the future we’ll know who are the initial problem solvers.”

To date the team has captured 68 raccoons and fitted 21 with collars.

“It’s very exciting,” says Stanton. “This past year has really built up this kind of foundation about the raccoons in Laramie, and now we’re going to start kind of tapping into their intelligent and see, you know, what they’re capable of,” says Stanton.

Seeing what the animals are capable of also depends on information from the public. Summer trapping may be over, but the team encourages Laramie residents to report raccoon sightings and behavior to the project at wyobio.org.