SciTech Now Episode 525

In this episode of SciTech Now, the mysterious minds of Raccoons; working on combating computer hackers; and an underwater discovery.



Coming up, the mysterious minds of raccoons.

I don't know if I would call a raccoon a trash panda or a bandit, perhaps.

To a raccoon, they're not being mischievous.

They are just -- They're being raccoons.

The fight against computer hacking.

We're taking the results of code scanning that's being done by other tools and doing our analysis to identify these situations.

An underwater discovery 7,000 years old.

What's remarkable is that that pond was used by Florida's indigenous peoples as the final resting place.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to our weekly program, bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

While raccoons are recognized for being mischievous, tricky trash animals, they're also known for being incredibly smart.

This under-the-radar intelligence has researchers at the University of Wyoming re-evaluating the North American animal.

Our partners at 'Science Friday' had the story.

We as a public think that raccoons are a very clever species, but they also have a reputation for being troublemakers.

Raccoons can be quite destructive, but it is a part of who they are, and they've evolved this way.

You know, as a researcher, I can appreciate that, but it definitely kind of exceeded my expectations, and they always keep you on your toes.

My name is Lauren Stanton, and I study animal behavior and cognition, and right now, I'm studying the cognition of raccoons.

In the early 1900s, they had all these great hypotheses about the intelligence of raccoons, but what happened was that they were kind of a handful to deal with in the lab, and so after a few years, researchers kind of threw in the towel.

But it hasn't been until more recently that we're realizing how successful these animals are.

They have really wide distributions and expanding populations, and they're doing this even in the face of environmental change, and so I'm in the Animal Behavior and Cognition Lab, and we're really interested in studying them and trying to understand if their cognition aids in being so successful.

So, raccoons use their hands to kind of see their environment.

They have really sensitive forepaws, and they forage in riverbeds where the water might be murky, so they use their forepaws to find food.

And I had thought that, you know, they might know about the properties of water because they've evolved with rivers and streams.

So I decided to use the Aesop's fable experiment.

It was inspired by Aesop's classic fable 'The Crow and the Pitcher.'

So, in the story, the crow understood 'I need to raise the water level up, I need to displace that water, by using stones,' and so we do this with animals where we train them to drop stones into an object that contains water and a floating really yummy food reward.

And then, you really get at their cognition and their causal understanding by giving them different choices.

So, perhaps a small stone versus a big stone, or if you do a solid object versus a hollow object or a heavy object versus a light object.

And so I had these predictions they were gonna perform very much like other species.

However, that's not what I found.

They would often pick up all of the objects that they could and just try to dump them into the tube at one time.

When they would pick the floating ball over the sinking ball, they'd drop it into the tube, and then they'd stand on top of the tube and just spin the ball, and they were able to get their marshmallow reward without actually using the object that I had predicted and intended for them to use, and so it seemed like raccoons were very flexible in the choices that they made, and I think it really speaks to the character of raccoons.

We first began with this Aesop's fable experiment, and now we're moving on to doing different types of problem-solving experiments, giving them different cognitive tasks and seeing how they perform at these tasks.

In 2015, we started the University of Wyoming Raccoon Project.

Our goal is to trap as many individuals as we can in this population.

And then, we know who that individual is, and we can track their progress across our different experiments.

And so, once we've trapped a raccoon, we will process it, which means we immobilize it in order to take biological samples of interest for our project.

We always take vitals, including heart rate, resp. rate, and temperature.

But then, we also give them a PIT tag, and it's very much like a microchip that you would use you know in a dog or a cat.

And so, when we scan the raccoons, they each have their own unique I.D., and this allows us to identify individuals, so it's a really, really helpful tool when we're doing cognition in the wild experiments.

So, the next thing was giving them different puzzle boxes.

So, the puzzle box experiment is a box that has food inside of it, and it's latched and it's closed, and the idea is to look at how raccoons are able to problem-solve in order to open the door so that they can receive the food from inside.

It's a bolt latch that, when it's locked, the animal can't access it by grabbing at the door or biting at the door.

They have to actually grab the knob and push it to the right to pop the door open.

In the first version of our puzzle box, we put many doors and many locks that were all uniform, and the idea was to study their learning by looking at how long it took them to open the first door to the second to the third.

With our second device, there were multiple different problems on this box.

There are multiple different latches, and so we wanted to see, if we start with one challenge, can you adjust your behavior and adjust your technique to open this new box, and that allows us to get an assessment of their behavioral flexibility.

So, we monitor the puzzle boxes by setting up these infrared cameras.

We're looking at their learning speed, we're looking at the different types of behaviors that they direct towards the puzzle box that they use when they're problem-solving.

So, right now, we are going back and reviewing all of our video footage and quantifying their progress in the experiments.

So, some individuals, you know, chose not to participate in our experiments, some individuals may have only found one or two solutions, but then we did see other raccoons who opened all of the doors and who found all of the solution types.

Lemongrass, for example, would come every night, and she would open every door of our puzzle boxes, and so it was pretty clear that she had solved this problem.

There were times where we might have three male raccoons show up at the puzzle box at one time, or other times, we saw a mom come with a group of four kits, and so we're really interested in trying to understand how the social context may have affected their problem-solving ability or their performance.

So, right now, we're still coding the videos from our puzzle-box experiments, but the next thing we're gonna do is look at their learning in a different way.

So, this is the next cognitive experiment we're gonna be taking into the field with our wild raccoons here in Laramie.

This device has an automated feeder in it, and so when the raccoons push a correct button, they will get an automatically released food reward.

Let's say if the animal had the left button correct first, we're then gonna switch it, and we're gonna make the right button correct.

So this is a very classic test of behavioral flexibility, and we're gonna look at the number of incorrect button pushes the animal makes while it sticks with that initial correct choice before it switches its behavior and it starts picking the other option.

Raccoons always seem to behave in ways that I don't expect, but I don't know if I would call a raccoon a trash panda or a bandit, perhaps.

To a raccoon, they're not being mischievous.

They are just -- They're being raccoons.

They are just surviving, and they're thriving in these environments that we've made.

I think that their cognition can help them find these resources and to figure out the best ways to exploit them, and I think that contributes to how successful they are.

Here to tell us more about the mysterious intelligence of raccoons is 'Science Friday' video producer Luke Groskin.

How smart are they?

Oh, they're smart.

They're -- I mean, having filmed them, actually sitting there fiddling with these puzzles that were set up, they -- they -- They're smart.

But here's the interesting thing.

How do you define smart?

So, is smart being able to remember something and then use that knowledge appropriately?

Is smart being able to be like, 'Oh, this isn't working.

Let's try something different.'

Or is smart, you know -- Is it an ability to, you know, actually solve the puzzle really, really quickly?

In the case of raccoons, they appear to be doing all of these things.

They appear to have a great flexibility.

If something's not working, they'll try it a different way.

They also can remember how to solve a previous problem.

And they also can solve -- oftentimes, solve things really, really quickly just by fiddling with it.

And can they do this socially?

I mean, can a mom raccoon teach baby raccoons?

Oh, that's a great question, and that's a really -- that's a research question that the folks that I worked with out at the University of Wyoming were really intrigued by.

How much knowledge does another raccoon give another raccoon, and particularly a mother raccoon to babies?

So what they've done is, they've set up all these puzzle boxes on the outskirts and in Laramie itself.

And they have --

They put treats in the boxes.

Yeah, there's treats in the boxes.

And all of the raccoons that, as part of this study, I think there's over 150 raccoons that they've tagged.

They put little individual tags in their necks.

And so when they approach the puzzle, the scanner recognizes that individual raccoon, and they have the blood from that raccoon, they know what's the family lineage, and over time, they're hoping to gather enough data to say, 'Okay.

Well, if this raccoon named Raspberry is really, really good at opening the traps, our puzzles, and all her babies seem to be really, really good at opening the puzzles, maybe there's some knowledge dissemination going on here.

Or maybe it's genetic.

Maybe she's an exceptionally intelligent raccoon, and maybe she's passing down those genes.

Mm. So, how do we measure the intelligence of raccoons?

Is it about their ability to solve specific problems to try to get treats?

It really depends on the very specific aspect that you want to measure.

So, if you want to measure, for example, flexibility, how adaptable is this animal when presented with a new and novel problem?

You would use a type of test that presents them something novel and then see how quickly do they figure out and solve that problem.

Whereas if you wanted to test their ability to remember something, you would go night after night after night, you have to track them and see if they come back over and over and over again, and do they remember and how quickly do they solve the problem based on their ability to solve a previous time.

So, if they solve it one night, do they solve it again the next night, and do they get better at it?

They have this rep in the United States as being kind of trash diggers and miscreants.

They're just kind of being themselves.

Totally. I mean, this is what they do best.

This is what they do in the wild.

Have you ever seen a raccoon not in a city or not invading a campsite or something like that?

They are problem-solvers.

They do a lot of foraging.

A lot of their foraging is about solving a problem.

So, they eat a lot of things in rivers, which means they're not gonna be using their eyes or their nose to sniff around in there.

They've got their paws underneath the water, they're feeling around, 'Oh, there's something there.

Oh, okay, there's -- there's some sort of clam or some sort of oyster that I want.

Okay. I'm gonna have to tear that open, but I can't use my eyes.

I have to use my hands.

And they do that without -- They do that very, very quickly, and they've solved all these problems.

And oftentimes, they're in water that they can't see.

So, all that knowledge, it has all that evolutionary experience has built up to a creature that has adapted to urban environments where we present them a lot of trash cans and closed objects that they have to get into.

Are their paws pretty sensitive?

Oh, they're incredibly sensitive.

They have -- Their paws, when I was looking at them when they were sleeping when they're doing all sorts of little tests and procedures on them, you could see that they're incredibly intricate little paws.

They're the only carnivore that have these type of paws, where you can -- they're almost like little mouths that can really, really feel and get all the sensory information you can possibly imagine out of them.

And that's why, when you see them, like, digging around in trash or grabbing things, they don't need to be looking at what they're grabbing.

Their hands are doing all the sensing they could possibly need.

They could be looking and making sure that the neighborhood dog isn't gonna come get them while their paws are doing all their foraging and getting all the information they need for them.

Wow. It's almost like the tip of an elephant's snout, right?

Very much like that.

Super sensitive, super flexible.

Did you get more respect for a raccoon after this story?

Oh, yeah.

I mean, as part of filming a story, we did a couple stakeouts with the puzzle boxes.

And the researcher, Lauren Stanton, at like 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, was like, 'I don't think we're gonna have any more raccoons tonight.

I don't think they're gonna come in or try anymore.

I think we're gonna call it quits.'

So, we pack everything up, we go in the car, and we're about -- we're driving away, and as we're driving out, we see like five or six raccoons running out from trash cans that are like maybe 200 yards away.

They were off feeding over there instead of playing with the puzzle boxes, and that's typical of raccoons.

Every time you think that you've solved the problem with them or understand them, they go and they do something that completely throws you for a loop.

All right, Luke Groskin, thanks so much.

Thank you.

♪♪ ♪♪

Computer hackers are a huge problem all over the world.

Now, a San Antonio, Texas, company is working on another solution to combat them.

Here's the story.

Cybersecurity affects all businesses.

It's part of the risk associated with operating a modern business, both -- These companies have to process data, they have to have computers, they have to do work on the Internet, and connected to the Internet, it potentially exposes their business to risk.

When teams of developers are sharing code for software, there can be vulnerabilities in that software that open it up to hackers.

Here at Denim Group in San Antonio, they've created a hot-spot technology and gotten a patent for it to address and correct these problems.

The problem with leaving vulnerabilities in code is that they could potentially be exploited by malicious parties, and that can result in a loss of data, in data being corrupted, in the data breaches that you see and read about in the news.

And so, the risk there is for organizations not addressing these vulnerabilities, as it leaves their organizations open to those types of -- those types of breaches.

So, it sounds to me that your process is able to scan a multitude of code and fix it on site.

Is that how it works?

So, we're taking the results of code scanning that's being done by other tools and doing our analysis to identify these situations, and what that let's us do is to identify the team that was the root cause of the vulnerability.

So, instead of trying to work with teams that weren't able, you weren't in a position to fix the vulnerabilities, we can identify the team that was actually responsible, go to the source, and in getting that team to fix the vulnerabilities and to push that code downstream, you get some leverage in fixing those vulnerabilities.

And so, if you can get that root cause team to fix a vulnerability but then to pass the results of that down to 10 or 20 or more teams that are using the results of that code, and essentially, by fixing one vulnerability, you can fix multiple vulnerabilities downstream.

As we get into the patent, it is called hot-spot technology.

That's the name that we have for it.

I think the patent calls it 'method for identifying shared vulnerable code,' which sounds less cool.

Denim Group is a San Antonio-based computer security consulting company.

We have employees based here in San Antonio as well as in Austin and around the country working directly with customers to help them with their computer-security needs.

In addition to providing consulting services, we also have a product thread fix for which we're discussing the patent today that helps customers manage security vulnerabilities within their business.

We're in a fortunate position, 'cause we've worked with large organizations, we help them run out -- roll out code-scanning and security-testing programs, and so that gives us a lot of interaction with organizations across different industries of different sizes, and that lets us see the type of problems that they have.

And so we can take that experience that we have working with these organizations, bring it back, and using that collective knowledge that we've built, identify the solutions where we think we can bring technology to bear to address those problems.

♪♪ ♪♪

A diver looking for shark's teeth off Manasota Key, Florida, stumbled across an amazing site.

He reported his discovery to Florida's Bureau of Archaeological Research, which determined that the site actually was a 7,000-year-old burial ground.

Here's the story.


These divers are with the Florida Department of State, Bureau of Archaeological Research.

They're exploring the resting place of a people who walked the Florida landscape over 7,000 years ago.

Well, the significance of the Manasota Key offshore site is multifaceted.

On one hand, you have this amazing preservation of the paleo landscape, that we have the remnants of a small freshwater pond with intact peat, with branches, with leaves, all the organic matter that you would expect to see in an inland freshwater pond.

And that happens to be out here in the Gulf of Mexico.

And what's remarkable is that that pond was used by Florida's indigenous peoples as the final resting place.

Dr. Duggins is the underwater archaeological supervisor for Florida and leads the investigation here.

We got consistent radiocarbon dates of over 7,200 years ago.

The site itself probably would've been 8 to 9 feet above sea level during its use.

And then, over the intervening thousands of years, the Gulf of Mexico has slowly crept up.

The last ice age ended 21,000 years ago.

All of the ice and snow that blanketed the northern hemisphere came from the oceans.

During the last glacial maximum 21,000 years ago, Florida was twice as wide as it is today.

So that means that all of that water behind me wouldn't have been there.

As we move forward in time, all of that land that is now under the Gulf of Mexico at 10,000 years ago, 7,000 years ago, that would've been prime, pristine landscape.

That's where fresh water would've been.

There would've been lakes and springs and rivers.

And there would've been plants and animals, and that's where Florida's indigenous peoples would've been living.


About 20 miles north of this site is historic Spanish Point, where another community thrived nearly 5,000 years ago.

By the time people settled here, the sea level had come up considerably.

By the time people lived here, it had already inundated what was the home site there at the Manasota Key offshore site.

Where we're standing here today is on our archaic shell ring.

This is a shell midden composed of all of the seafood that the Native American peoples ate as well as discarded tools, bits and pieces of pottery.

This one's very unique because it grew around a freshwater spring, and it's circular in shape.

We're about 20 feet above sea level, so this is a very dramatic shellworks, if you will, where thousands of years of consumption of seafood actually resulted in changing landscape and actually shaped this land into the configuration that's here today.

Another shell midden at Spanish Point dating back 2,000 years juts out into Little Sarasota Bay.

And so, we have a site here where, years ago, an excavation pit was created, and we've brought it indoors, put a roof over it, and added interpretation so that you can literally look 2,000 years back in time and see all the layers of the buildup of the shell, the pottery, the tools, and everything that these people left behind.

Digging through a shell midden with pick and shovel is much different from the painstaking efforts to excavate an underwater burial site.

Logistics here are everything.

We have to have boats that are working.

We have to have good wind and weather.

We have to have all of the diving equipment that we need, 'cause that really is our life-support equipment that we need in order to be able to work.

And once all of those things kind of fall into place, then we can actually start doing the archaeology.

And so, what we're trying to do is really figure out how big the site is, how dense the site is, that is, how many individuals were interred here.

But then, also, how deep is the site?

The work here also requires the support of the local community.

The Gulf Coast Community Foundation, located in Venice, Florida, jumped right in to help.

We had representatives from the Seminole tribe.

We also had archaeologists, Ringling College of Art and Design, librarians, Sarasota County government, we all came together and said, 'What would be the priorities around this site?'

And we decided that the first thing would be how do we protect the site so that we can do the science and research that needs to be done.

And also preserve the site so that we show respect for the people that were here.

And then, also, educate the public around that.

The educational effort was led by John McCarthy.

I was invited by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and the Florida Department of State to do some educational programs related to this, and we had no idea how many people would come.

We've had over 500 people come to a session.

We've had multiple sessions with over 200 people coming.

And every place we go, people are just fascinated by this submerged, prehistoric site.

The people that live in this part of Florida, around Venice and Sarasota, Manasota Key, Englewood, there's a respect for the history that has been established here.

The ancestors of the indigenous people who are buried here were involved in every step along the way.

My office at DHR is working in close consultation with the Seminole Tribe of Florida to kind of think about how we can preserve this site, protect this site, not just for the next couple months or even the next couple years but thinking long-term.

As part of that protection, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation raised funds to help set up barriers.

What we've decided to do is actually put buoys denoting the maximum extent of the site.

That'll go a long way in making sure that there's not unintentional disturbance to the site, but it'll also go a long way in helping protect the site against intentional disturbance, against looters.

For Ryan, this extraordinary discovery is only the beginning.

It validates my long-held idea that Florida's Gulf Coast and all those waters that are covering the continental shelf likely contain intact archaeological deposits and that we need to consider that as we move forward.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by...