Solitary Pumas Turn Out to Be Mountain Lions Who Lunch

Published 10/11/17 in The New York Times by Douglas Quenua

Pumas have long had a reputation as loners, studiously marking their territory, hunting individually and tolerating one another only when it’s time to mate.

But the animals — also known as mountain lions, cougars or panthers — may be more social than previously thought, according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

To study puma interactions, researchers tagged 13 of the animals with GPS trackers and filmed their behavior at Wyoming feeding spots from 2012 to 2015. The film showed pumas with overlapping or adjacent territories repeatedly sharing elk carcasses that were too large for one puma to consume. The shared feeding sometimes lasted days.

Based on the feeding visits, the researchers were able to map complex social networks of puma reciprocity. This typically consisted of a single male and multiple females. Though the animals were rarely caught interacting on film outside of eating together, the researchers believe they were also sharing land and water sources, and the networks helped determine which pumas would mate with each other. Male pumas may also have been providing protection for females with kittens.

The findings challenge conventional wisdom not just about pumas, but about supposedly solitary mammals in general, said Mark Elbroch, lead scientist for the puma program at Panthera, a wildcat conservation group, and an author of the study. Perhaps, he said, researchers simply had to take the longer view when deciding just how gregarious less-social animals really are.

“Mountain lions interact infrequently — in our study about once every 11 to 12 days during winter,” he said. More social animals like meerkats, wolves and chimpanzees interact consistently throughout the day. But that didn’t mean they were all loners.

“To document reciprocity among mountain lions, we needed to step back and assess behaviors over longer time spans,” he said. By taking the longer view, “we captured the patterns of behavior that have no doubt been occurring among mountain lions all along.”

Dr. Elbroch said he was compelled to perform the research after observing two female pumas share a carcass in 2012 in a forest near Grand Teton National Park. Though he had initially assumed the two animals were sisters, later study revealed them to be unrelated. “So many questions exploded in my head that I just had to pursue some answers,” Dr. Elbroch said.

In the current study, the puma communities were determined largely by the territorial boundaries of the males, said Dr. Elbroch. “Males acted like governors of fiefdoms, structuring how all mountain lions across the landscape interacted with each other,” he said.

Though pumas are found throughout the Americas, hunting and human development have reduced their footprint in North America, where they are now found mostly in Mexico, southern Florida and the Western United States. Though they are listed as an endangered or protected species in many areas, hunting is still allowed in many parts of the U.S.

If pumas are living in communities, it raises new questions about the impact that hunting, especially adult males, may have on the animals, said Dr. Elbroch.

“What are the influences of trophy hunting on the social fabric of mountain lion society?” he said. “There is so much more to learn.”

Read the original article here.