U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


Date of this Version



Animal Cognition (2021) 24:555–568



U.S. government work

Includes Supplementary Materials


Urbanization imposes novel challenges for wildlife, but also provides new opportunities for exploitation. Generalist species are commonly found in urban habitats, but the cognitive mechanisms facilitating their successful behavioral adaptations and exploitations are largely under-investigated. Cognitive flexibility is thought to enable generalists to be more plastic in their behavior, thereby increasing their adaptability to a variety of environments, including urban habitats. Yet direct measures of cognitive flexibility across urban wildlife are lacking. We used a classic reversal-learning paradigm to investigate the cognitive flexibility of three generalist mesocarnivores commonly found in urban habitats: striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis), raccoons (Procyon lotor), and coyotes (Canis latrans). We developed an automated device and testing protocol that allowed us to administer tests of reversal learning in captivity without extensive training or experimenter involvement. Although most subjects were able to rapidly form and reverse learned associations, we found moderate variation in performance and behavior during trials. Most notably, we observed heightened neophobia and a lack of habituation expressed by coyotes. We discuss the implications of such differences among generalists with regard to urban adaptation and we identify goals for future research. This study is an important step in investigating the relationships between cognition, generalism, and urban adaptation.