The raccoon has long been a symbol of mischief, but they are also well recognized as clever critters. If you have ever had the opportunity of watching a raccoon eat, interact with other raccoons, or just simply live in its own environment, you may have wondered to yourself: just how smart are raccoons, exactly? And how does raccoon intelligence compare with other animals?
Raccoons are known to easily find their way into crevices of your home that you would never have thought were accessible to a critter of that size. They are notorious for finding their way into trash cans, compost piles, and anything else on your property that could offer anything to them that is edible. Even certain locking mechanisms aren’t enough to keep raccoons out as they have even been recorded opening some latches and doors. Raccoons have a hypersensitive sense of touch, and are believed to be able to hear things as quiet as an earthworm moving underground.
Even with all of these intriguing pieces of information about raccoon behavior, there have still only been very few studies on the actual level of intelligence.
Raccoon intelligence can be tied to it’s heightened senses.
Touch – The raccoon’s sense of touch is its most important sense. If you have ever fed wild raccoons, you would notice that when they approach the food, they commonly keep their eyes on you, but feel around for the food with their paws. Their paws have five digits and are covered with a “horny layer” which becomes pliable when it gets wet. About two thirds of the part of the raccoons brain that is responsible for sensory perception is specialized for interpreting the sense of touch. This is more than any recorded animal! All of this could lead to the common belief that raccoons actually possess opposable thumbs (which they do not). Raccoons are so surprisingly able to use their paws in such a way that many people refer to their paws as “hands”. Raccoons can also identify things before even touching them because their sensitive, non-retractable claws are covered in small hairs called “vibrissae” that send signals to their brain.
Hearing – The raccoon has an impressive auditory sense. They can hear tones up to 85kHz and sounds as quiet as an earthworm moving underground close to the surface.
Smell – The sense of smell is very useful to the raccoon. The raccoon’s acute sense of smell helps it navigate in the dark, up around trees, and directly to food.
Sight – Sight is not a very important sense to raccoons. Raccoons are generally understood to be colorblind, and also have very poor long-distance vision. Aside from this, raccoons can see comparably well in twilight, which is quite useful to this nocturnal animal.
Zoologist Clinton Hart Merriam was quoted claiming that, in some ways, the raccoon’s “cunning surpasses that of the fox”. Raccoons intelligence is evident in the fact that the animal has thrived with the spread of human urbanization, instead of receded. Raccoons are historically under-studied for intelligence, but out of the few studies done on them, raccoons performed outstandingly well.
- H.B. Davis “Lock Test”
In 1908, a study was done by ethologist H.B. Davis to test raccoon intelligence using a series of locking mechanisms that needed to be mastered in order to release a treat. The Raccoons had to figure out how to manipulate a total of 13 complex locks in order to be rewarded. Sometimes the locks were turned upside down, rearranged, or required a combination of locks in certain orders. They included buttons, gate hooks, and bolts.
In fewer than 10 tries, the raccoons were impressively able to open 11 of the 13 locks. Even after finding the solutions to the tasks set before them, more studies were later done to find that the raccoons were able to remember the solutions to these locks for up to three years.
In comparison, Davis took a look at work that was done by other researches on rhesus macaques. He observed that at first it seemed the the monkeys seemed “a little less clever at the start” in comparison to raccoons. The monkeys were a little more open to distraction than raccoons were. However, overall he stated that “the two animals stand fairly close together in the matter of learning to undo locking devices.”
- Walter S. Hunter’s Light-Bulb Memory Test
Walter S. Hunter conducted an experiment between four raccoons, five human children, two dogs, and 22 rats. His objective was to find out how raccoon intelligence stacked up against its contenders in the memory department.
He first positively associated a light bulb illuminating with a reward of food. After that, he kept each test subject behind a gate from which they could observe three light bulbs. One of the three bulbs would briefly illuminate, then shut off. The test subjects had to remember which light bulb had illuminated after being shut off for a period of time, then approach and collect the reward.
In the results of the tests, it appeared that the raccoons, dogs, and rats all learned in the same way. In fact, the raccoons did not stand out for the length of time they were able to correctly remember how long the light had been illuminated.
One big difference, though, was that the dogs and rats had to keep their bodies and eyes pointed toward the light bulb in order to correctly remember which one had been lit. The raccoon and the children were able to walk around freely and change their body orientation away from the light bulb and still be able to remember which was lit even after being distracted.
A raccoons intelligence is definitely something to be considered when you have a raccoon infestation in your attic or home. Don’t underestimate these smart little guys. Call in an expert to keep you, your family, and your property safe.