Proving that they’re not to be underestimated, raccoons have demonstrated their cognitive abilities by solving an ancient puzzle. No, they haven’t suddenly turned into furry Indiana Joneses, but they have shown that the mystery behind Aesop’s “The Crow and the Pitcher” isn’t much of an enigma to them.
In this Ancient Greek tale, a crow “half-dead with thirst” comes across a pitcher with a small opening. Putting his beak into it, he finds that he cannot reach the small pool of water at the base. After a while, he realizes that if he puts some pebbles into it, the water level rises – and eventually, he’s able to drink.
This fable has formed a very practical test of puzzle solving for a range of animals. It’s been used on human children to see when such reasoning capabilities first crop up, as well as on crows, which are known to have excellent problem-solving skills.
Now, as reported in Animal Cognition, a team from the University of Wyoming and the USDA National Wildlife Research Center have tested it out on some mammalian carnivores too.
Eight raccoons held in captivity were chosen, and the same pitcher setup was presented to them. However, instead of just boring old water at the base of the pitcher, some delicious marshmallows were left floating at the bottom.
Like crows before them, the raccoons did not immediately realize how to solve the puzzle, so their humans gave them a little bit of a helping hand. By balancing some stones on the top rim of the pitcher, the raccoons worked out what to do when they accidentally knocked them into the abyss, bringing the marshmallows higher.
Of the eight raccoons, four managed to successfully nom the marshmallows after accidentally tipping the stones into the pitcher. Two of these learned how to do it a second time without the stones placed on the precipice.
Curiously, when given larger stones or denser objects, which would have displaced more water than the smaller ones, the raccoons didn’t always use them. This suggests they didn’t fundamentally understand the problem as well as their feathered friends.
The team suspects, however, that this isn’t reflective of “cognitive deficiencies,” but of raccoons' long-term exploratory behavior and small paws. Given more time with the equipment, they’d potentially do as well as crows who’ve had more experience in this regard.
Interestingly, one raccoon chose to bend the rules. This inventive female managed to find a way to knock over the pitcher – no easy task – and retrieve the marshmallows as they came tumbling out. Aesop clearly didn’t see that one coming.
When it comes to innovation, then, the crows had better watch their backs.