Research abounds at Richmond, so we love when our professors team up with star researchers from around the world to further their fields — and make national headlines in the process.

Take psychology professor Kelly Lambert, who has been researching the brain power of various species, raccoons in particular. She’s part of an international research team whose work led to an interesting finding about cats and dogs that piqued the media’s interest.

Their study seems to settle the age-old debate of which animal is smarter — cats or dogs. Together, they found that a dog’s cerebral cortex contains 530 million cortical neurons — twice the neurons of a cat’s brain. Although density of cortical neurons isn’t a direct measure of intelligence, the higher number of neurons suggests that dogs have more cortical real estate to work with than their feline friends.  (For comparison, a human brain contains almost 30 times as many cortical neurons as a dog.)  

Many national news outlets — from National Geographic and USA Today to CNN and ABC News — jumped on the story and shared the popular outcome.

So how did the researchers get there? Students in Lambert’s neuroplasticity seminar read Vanderbilt professor Dr. Suzana Herculano-Houzel’s “The Human Advantage” to learn more about a new technique to count the number of neurons in various brain areas in different species.

Lambert then approached Herculano-Houzel about including the raccoon brain in a collaborative research project using the new neuron-counting technique to study various carnivorans’ brain power — and the raccoons, in addition to  cats, dogs, hyenas, and bears — were evaluated. The collaboration also includes other researchers from California, Brazil, South Africa, and Denmark.

Although they concluded that dogs have more cortical neurons than cats, it turns out that raccoons’ brains are the most impressive of all the animals they studied.

“We are currently assessing additional raccoon brains in both our UR behavioral neuroscience laboratory and Suzana’s Vanderbilt lab to learn more about how their brains contribute to their complex and flexible behavior,” Lambert said. “We’re looking forward to learning more about these masked mammals!”

While we don’t recommend adopting a raccoon anytime soon, we are proud that our faculty are contributing to research that is making national news. 

Shop Spider Gear Make a Gift