Clever Raccoons Outsmart Intelligence Tests

clever raccoons

Story at-a-glance -

  • To figure out whether raccoons could catch on to the notion that dropping stones into water causes the water level to rise, they first trained captive raccoons to drop stones into a tube of water in order to retrieve a piece of floating food (a marshmallow)
  • Out of eight raccoons, two mimicked the behavior they’d been shown, dropping stones into the tube until they could successfully claim their floating food reward.
  • A third raccoon had another idea entirely; she rocked the tube until it tipped over, giving her easy access to the marshmallow

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

You may have heard the Aesop's Fable "The Crow and the Pitcher," which tells the story of a thirsty crow who comes across a pitcher of water. The problem is that there's only a little bit of water left, and the crow's beak cannot reach far down enough to allow him to drink. The crow then gets an idea — he drops pebbles into the pitcher until the water level rises high enough for him to quench his thirst, saving his life.1

The story was written during Aesop's life from 620 BC to 560 BC, but it's still relevant today. Researchers use what's known as the Aesop's fable paradigm to assess whether animals understand cause and effect using water displacement, like the crow in the fable apparently did. It's been tested on certain birds and primates, but in a November 2017 study published in Animal Cognition, raccoons were also put to the test, with intriguing results.2

Raccoons' Creativity Shines During Aesop's Fable Intelligence Test

To figure out whether raccoons could catch on to the notion that dropping stones into water causes the water level to rise, they first trained captive raccoons to drop stones into a tube of water in order to retrieve a piece of floating food (a marshmallow). Some of the raccoons attempted to reach into the tube to snatch up the tasty morsel, but it was too low for them to reach. Out of eight raccoons, two mimicked the behavior they'd been shown, dropping stones into the tube until they could successfully claim their floating food reward.

A third raccoon had another idea entirely. She rocked the tube until it tipped over, giving her easy access to the marshmallow. Study author Lauren Stanton, Ph.D., from the University of Wyoming, told National Geographic, "That was something we hadn't predicted … It reaffirms how innovative and how creative they are in problem-solving."3

The raccoons that successfully completed the challenge then took place in another experiment, this time being given balls that either floated or sunk, and therefore differed in how much water they displaced.

The researchers were curious to see if the raccoons would figure out the most functional option of the two, assuming they'd turn to the sinking balls to get their treat. But the raccoons showed their clever sides once again, using the floating balls as tools of sorts instead. One raccoon splashed bits of marshmallow to the sides of the tube by pushing the floating balls up and down while another raccoon spun the balls then ate the marshmallow that had rubbed off onto the ball.

"[W]e found raccoons to be innovative in many aspects of this task," the researchers wrote in Animal Cognition. "We suggest that raccoon performance in this paradigm reflected differences in tangential factors, such as behavior, morphology, and testing procedures, rather than cognitive deficiencies."4

In short, the animals may not have completed the task as expected, but they still demonstrated their own type of ingenuity. Other animals known to excel at the Aesop's Fable test include certain crows, rooks, Eurasian jays and great apes.5

How Smart Are Raccoons?

Raccoons are known for being curious, clever and mischievous to the point that many people view them as pests, but during the early 20th century, research testing the learning and memory abilities of raccoons showed they were able to solve problems (opening a series of latches to get out of a crate) better than cats and dogs, on a similar level as monkeys.6,7

"Some researchers who studied raccoons, such as Lawrence Cole of the University of Oklahoma, became convinced the animals represented a unique model of animal intelligence. He and others even suggested that raccoons could hold mental imagery in their brains and learn through imitation," Live Science reported.8

One particularly interesting study published in 1913 involved rats, dogs, raccoons and children, who were tasked with identifying which one of three light bulbs would turn on, and remembering the correct bulb after a delay.9

While raccoons could figure out the correct light bulb after a 25-second delay (compared to five minutes for dogs and one second for rats), they and the children were the only ones who could do so after moving away from the bulbs. In order to successfully complete the test, the dogs and rats had to keep their bodies facing the right bulb.

Eventually, studying raccoons fell out of favor, especially as rats became the primary animals used in laboratory settings. Raccoons were once eyed for this purpose, but the idea was abandoned as it became apparent that raccoons were accomplished escape artists and difficult to keep, practically speaking.10

Raccoons Are Cute and Clever but Don't Make Good Pets

Melanie the raccoon, who can perform more than 100 different behaviors, has become a bit of an Internet sensation. In the video above, she takes her toy chicken for a walk. However, as cute as they are, keep in mind that raccoons are wild animals, not pets. The same characteristics that make them so lovable as wild animals — their cleverness and mischief-making — are the same ones that make them unsuitable as pets.

Left unsupervised, raccoons can quickly destroy a home and its furnishings. Plus, they can be unpredictable (and are notorious biters) around other pets and humans, not to mention carry a host of zoonotic diseases.

It's also illegal to keep raccoons as pets in some U.S. states, so while their inquisitive nature and sometimes-charming behaviors and features may make it seem like they'd behave similar to housecats, don't be mistaken. It's best for everyone — humans and raccoons alike — if raccoons stay in the wild.