Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Cadence. Cadence Wonders, “Why do raccoons have black masks?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Cadence!
We were traipsing through the forest the other day when we stumbled upon a group of animals deep in conversation:
Opossum: I thought we had all agreed that we were going to ask the people at the cabin for some food.
Badger: We are! We're not going to just break into the cabin and steal food.
Opossum: Then why is he wearing a mask?
Badger: Who? The raccoon? That's just his face!
Raccoon: Yeah, I always look like a burglar. You should see the reactions I get at the bank.
Opossum: I bet! Well, maybe you should hang back at the edge of the woods while we ring the doorbell.
We weren't able to stick around to see if the animals were successful in their attempt to persuade the people in the cabin to give them food. We did feel sorry for the raccoon, though. It must be difficult to look like you're always wearing a mask.
Unfortunately, if you've ever lived in an area with raccoons nearby, you know that they often live up to their burglar-like appearance. Raccoons are omnivorous, which means they eat both plants and animals.
People familiar with raccoons know they'll eat most anything. In the wild, their diet consists of a wide variety of fruits, berries, nuts, plants, insects, frogs, crayfish, and rodents.
In urban areas, raccoons are attracted to garbage cans and will eat most anything they find in the trash. Raccoons can quickly become a nuisance if garbage is too easy to access. Their behavior has led many cities to search — usually in vain — for garbage can lids that are raccoon-proof.
Why are raccoons so good at getting into the trash? They have tiny hands with nimble fingers that are able to manipulate many different types of locks, latches, and levers. They're also known to be quite clever.
Scientists who studied raccoon intelligence in the mid-20th century concluded that the raccoons in the study could remember solutions to tasks they were given for up to 3 years. That's pretty impressive for an animal whose life span in the wild is, on average, two to three years.
More recently, scientists tested a group of raccoons to see how they would perform on the Aesop's Fable test. This test is based upon an old fable in which a crow can't drink from a pitcher because the water level is too low. The clever crow drops stones into the pitcher to raise the level of the water, so that it's able to drink.
In the Aesop's Fable test, the raccoons were tested to determine whether they could recognize cause and effect by displacing water to access food. They were presented with cylinders with marshmallows floating on top of water, but they were too low to grab.
The researchers showed the raccoons how dropping stones into the water raised the level. Would they repeat the behavior? Two of the eight raccoons in the study did indeed repeat the behavior.
Does this mean raccoons aren't intelligent as we thought? Not at all! Several other raccoons showed themselves to be creative problem solvers, surprising the researchers with their resourcefulness.
Some of the raccoons climbed onto the cylinder and rocked it back and forth until it tipped over, giving them access to the treats inside. Others used floating balls to collect pieces of marshmallow to eat.
While the raccoons didn't easily pass the test like the few other animals known to pass it (including crows and great apes), they did show innovative approaches that reveal an advanced level of intelligence. It's no WONDER they can get into most any trash can!