Friday, November 25, 2011

Raccoons Becoming Smarter Thanks to People

Raccoons easily adapt to challenges of life in the city. Photo courtesy: © Laurie Peterson

Able to squeeze into locked garages, open secured garbage cans, unzip tents, and pry up lids on Tupperware, urban raccoons love a challenge. Extremely adaptable and smart, they're expert problem solvers, evolving faster than we can devise raccoon-proof gadgetry. When cornered these masked invaders can put up a ferocious fight. Many a pet dog or cat has fallen victim to their claws and teeth. Fortunately, raccoons tend to be on the timid side and would rather run than fight.

The film documents a recent study in which scientists GPS-tracked raccoons’ nocturnal habits with night-time cameras, exposing insights into their previously unknown bandit-like behavior, such as how they’ve learned to avoid their only urban predator — the automobile, where they sleep and the surprising limits of their territory near your backyard.

Night cameras track raccoons foraging for dinner by opening locked garbage bins. Photo courtesy: © Laurie Peterson

Raccoon Nation (which can be viewed online) explores the issues involving these animals, from the devastation of 1000-year-old temples with a couple decades in Japan to Chicago’s parasite infestation, and how some clever German engineering is addressing how to prevent them from climbing downspouts. The documentary also addresses how humans have exacerbated the overpopulation through importing the non-indigenous species in a misguided attempt to turn them into pets.

Watch Raccoon Nation - Preview on PBS. See more from Nature.

Curiously, these masked critters prefer the big city. In Toronto, there are 50 times more raccoons in the city than the countryside. As omnivores, they adapt well and learn more quickly. In fact, the complex obstacles the urban environments present raccoons are accelerating their development. With hand-like front feet they can open doors and their collapsible spines allow them to climb through crevasses. What’s next -- opposable thumbs?

When the cartoon Rascal the Raccoon grew popular in Japan during the 1970s, the baby animals were imported as pets. As they outgrew their homes, they were dumped in the woods and have since decimated 80% of the ancient temples. With no natural predator in the country, there is zero tolerance for the 10,000 trapped each year.

Kassel, Germany, the raccoon capital of Europe, there are 100 raccoons per square kilometer. “It’s a power struggle,” said an engineer who came up with protective device for downspouts the clever animals climb up. Are they encroaching on our territory? Will they outnumber us? And how do we co-exist with invasive wildlife?

As master dumpster divers, raccoons have grown 20 times larger over the last 70 years, snacking on our food waste and improving their brains.

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