Observing the Secret Lives of Raccoons
Enhanced Video Resource

This video segment from Nature: “Raccoon Nation” highlights a study which explored the movements of urban raccoons.  Biologists Marc Dupuis-Desormeaux and Suzanne MacDonald conducted the study in Toronto, Canada to gain more insight into raccoon behavior. The segment shows how the scientists used radio collars, placed around the raccoons’ necks, to track the raccoons’ GPS locations every 5 to 15 minutes. The collars contained a mini hard drive and transmitted a VHF signal which enabled Dupuis-Desormeaux and MacDonald to track the raccoons’ locations and download the data. This study, which is the first to successfully track the exact movements of raccoons in a city, found that raccoons generally stay in an area the size of about three city blocks. The segment shows the scientists reviewing the data and being surprised by the small size of the raccoons’ territories.

Discussion Questions:

Before watching the video:

  • Two Canadian scientists conducted a study in which they tracked the movements of raccoons in Toronto, Canada. What do you think they could learn from that type of study? What questions could they answer?

After watching the video:

  • Discuss why Dupuis-Desormeaux and MacDonald decided to embark on this project and what they wanted to find out.
  • What were the main findings of the study? What were some surprises that the scientists discovered after reviewing the data? What conclusions did the researchers make, based on the information they discovered about the raccoons’ territory size?
  • In order to conduct this study, the researchers trapped, sedated and placed radio collars on 5 raccoons. What do you think about this methodology? Do you think scientists should place tracking devices on animals in order to gain more information about their behavior? Explain your reasoning.

Background Essay:

In the past 70 years, raccoon populations have dramatically increased in urban areas, including major cities like New York, Chicago and Toronto. Until recently, however, scientists had limited knowledge about how raccoons survive in cities. Thanks to modern technology, they can now track movements of different species and analyze their behavior patterns. In a ground-breaking study, highlighted in the video segment “Observing the Secret Lives of Raccoons,” Canadian biologists Marc Dupuis-Desormeaux and Suzanne MacDonald explored raccoon behavior by placing radio collars on five raccoons in Toronto. The radio collars provided the researchers with GPS locations for the raccoons every 5 to 15 minutes, while previous studies were only able to gather GPS data every 3 to 5 hours. As a result of the frequent readings, Dupuis-Desormeaux and MacDonald were able to gain new insight about where raccoons spend their time. They discovered raccoons don’t usually cross major roads and they tend to have small territories which are, on average, the size of about three city blocks.

Conducting research with wild species poses unique challenges for researchers, since they need to gain information about the animals in their natural environments, without negatively affecting the animals or interfering too much with the species’ activities. The “Three R’s” of animal research, originally outlined by scientists William Russell and Rex Burch in 1959, provide guidelines for humane research and experimentation with animals. The “Three “R’s” include “replacement” (replace animals with microorganisms, metazoan parasites or plants in research studies, whenever possible), “reduction” (use the minimal number of animals possible to conduct the study) and “refinement” (use the most humane and least invasive techniques possible).  Current research with wildlife incorporates modern technology and techniques to conduct research in a way that results in minimal discomfort or distress for the species.

Through their study, Dupuis-Desormeaux and MacDonald successfully gathered data about the behavior of raccoons at night in cities, rather than in a lab environment, zoo, or other controlled setting. The VHF signal transmitted by the radio collars made it possible for the scientists to gather data without having to re-trap the raccoons and remove the collar each time they wanted to download information.

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National Science Education Standards

Grades 5-8:
Content Standard E: Science and Technology
Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:

  • Understandings about Science and Technology
    • Science and technology are reciprocal. Science helps drive technology, as it addresses questions that demand more sophisticated instruments and provides principles for better instrumentation and technique. Technology is essential to science, because it provides instruments and techniques that enable observations of objects and phenomena that are otherwise unobservable due to factors such as quantity, distance, location, size, and speed. Technology also provides tools for investigations, inquiry, and analysis.

Content Standard G: History and Nature of Science
Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:

  • Science as a Human Endeavor
    • Women and men of various social and ethnic backgrounds—and with diverse interests, talents, qualities, and motivations—engage in the activities of science, engineering, and related fields such as the health professions. Some scientists work in teams, and some work alone, but all communicate extensively with others.
    • Science requires different abilities, depending on such factors as the field of study and type of inquiry. Science is very much a human endeavor, and the work of science relies on basic human qualities, such as reasoning, insight, energy, skill, and creativity—as well as on scientific habits of mind, such as intellectual honesty, tolerance of ambiguity, skepticism, and openness to new ideas.
  • Nature of Science
    • Scientists formulate and test their explanations of nature using observation, experiments, and theoretical and mathematical models. Although all scientific ideas are tentative and subject to change and improvement in principle, for most major ideas in science, there is much experimental and observational confirmation. Those ideas are not likely to change greatly in the future. Scientists do and have changed their ideas about nature when they encounter new experimental evidence that does not match their existing explanations.
    • It is part of scientific inquiry to evaluate the results of scientific investigations, experiments, observations, theoretical models, and the explanations proposed by other scientists. Evaluation includes reviewing the experimental procedures, examining the evidence, identifying faulty reasoning, pointing out statements that go beyond the evidence, and suggesting alternative explanations for the same observations. Although scientists may disagree about explanations of phenomena, about interpretations of data, or about the value of rival theories, they do agree that questioning, response to criticism, and open communication are integral to the process of science. As scientific knowledge evolves, major disagreements are eventually resolved through such interactions between scientists.

Grades 9-12:
Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry
Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:

  • Understandings about Scientific Inquiry
    • Scientists rely on technology to enhance the gathering and manipulation of data. New techniques and tools provide new evidence to guide inquiry and new methods to gather data, thereby contributing to the advance of science. The accuracy and precision of the data, and therefore the quality of the exploration, depends on the technology used.

Content Standard E: Science and Technology
Fundamental abilities and concepts that underlie this standard include:

  • Understandings about Science and Technology
    • Science often advances with the introduction of new technologies. Solving technological problems often results in new scientific knowledge. New technologies often extend the current levels of scientific understanding and introduce new areas of research.

Content Standard G: History and Nature of Science
Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:

  • Science as a Human Endeavor
    • Individuals and teams have contributed and will continue to contribute to the scientific enterprise. Doing science or engineering can be as simple as an individual conducting field studies or as complex as hundreds of people working on a major scientific question or technological problem. Pursuing science as a career or as a hobby can be both fascinating and intellectually rewarding.
  • http://www.nassaucountyanimalcontrol.net David

    Raccoon populations in urban area are out of control. This is because there are no predators of raccoons, such as coyotes living in these neighborhoods.

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