A macaque drinks from a juice carton the animal stole from beachgoers in Thailand. A new paper by University of Wyoming researchers examines whether smarter animals adapt better to living in urban areas, but also how that adaptability can lead to more conflicts with humans. (Lisa Barrett)

Last week a Minnesota raccoon captivated the nation as it climbed a skyscraper.

As people marveled at its endeavor on social media, Lauren Stanton thought “Yes, that seems like something a raccoon would potentially do,” she said.

Raccoons are climbers. They are dexterous, clever and adaptable, Stanton said. She’s a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wyoming and works in an animal cognition lab there.

For Stanton the animal’s adaptability in particular stood out as it scaled the office tower, finding and eating pigeon eggs along the way. The trait helps racoons survive, even thrive, in urban areas, but it can also can get it into trouble with humans.

Stanton is an author of a new paper that examines whether smarter animals might adapt better to urban environments, but also come into more conflict with humans. The paper was recently published in the journal “Animal Behaviour.”

Stanton, along with co-authors Lisa Barrett and Sarah Benson-Amram, wanted to understand how cognition aids animals in adapting to urban environments.

“We humans are changing the planet very drastically,” Stanton said. “And for a lot of animals, they haven’t seen this kind of change — ever.”

Some species struggle to adapt and populations plummet. Other species, like raccoons, change their behavior to take advantage of their new surroundings.

Behavioral flexibility is a biological advantage for wildlife. Raccoons can learn how and where to find food in the city — in people’s trash cans for example — while another species is unable to connect those dots. That adaptability allows them to survive, but it also puts them at risk for potentially lethal human encounters, and may earn them a reputation as a pest.

A kea stands on a roof of a car in New Zealand. The birds are known to learn how to open “animal-proof” trash bins. Smart animals learn to adapt to living in cities, but those adaptations put them at risk for more conflicts with people. (Sarah Benson-Amram)

“These animals are persevering and learning ways to live beside us,” Stanton said. “But what makes them so adaptable also makes them a nuisance.”

The authors looked at research studying wildlife cognition and urbanization, defining “urban” broadly to include human disturbed landscapes, including agriculture.

They also cast their net globally. One animal in the paper is a bird called a kea, that lives in New Zealand and is renowned for breaking into “animal-proof” trash cans. They also included research on the macaque, a monkey that steals objects like sunglasses from tourists and then trades the items back for food, Benson-Amram, one of the paper’s authors and director of the animal cognition lab, said.

The researchers learned some species have an impressive ability to live in new and changing environments, but they also learned it’s an area that needs more study.

They found anecdotal stories, like seagulls that descend on baseball games in the eighth and ninth innings — shortly before the stadium empties, making a hoard of food refuse available  — no matter what day or time the game is held.

“How do they know when to arrive?” Benson-Amram said. “There are great examples of animals doing complex things that we haven’t studied yet.”

It’s not enough to identify the behavior. Researchers want to understand why the animal does it and how it thinks. If researchers can better understand how animals adapt, including what sounds, lights and cues they respond to and how behavior is passed down to offspring, they might be able to reduce human-wildlife conflicts.

“As we learn more about these animals, recommendations about different strategies will only be more effective,” Benson-Amram said.

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Raccoons, for example, might learn trash collection schedules and know which streets to hit for garbage on what days. It hasn’t been studied, but if true such an adaptation would open questions about how they learn and navigate, Benson-Amram said. Answering those questions could help people design ways to keep animals from raiding their garbage cans.

The need to understand how animals adapt to living in human-inhabited areas and develop effective mitigation strategies for human-animal conflicts is growing along with our global population.

“Urbanization is going to continue to expand to accommodate a growing population,” Stanton said. “I expect we will see new types of [human-wildlife] conflicts. The more research we can do and the more willing people are to understand wildlife, the more harmonious it will be.”

Stanton said she doesn’t expect to suddenly see raccoons regularly scaling skyscrapers.

“But we’re going to see more and more cases of animals doing these extraordinary things in the city as they try to adapt,” she said.

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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