Pumas - Overview of Life History, Evolution and Research
Updated: Apr 22, 2019
Satellite transmitter technology has completely revolutionized the study of wildlife. From bats to blue whales, GPS transmitters can now be used to monitor almost any species with a backbone, providing researchers with incredibly rich and precise data at the click of a mouse. Before satellite collars, researchers used VHF (very high frequency) radio collars to locate animals, performing triangulations with a compass and map. This method is imprecise, extremely time-consuming, gas-expensive, and usually yields about one location per day per study animal. Satellite collars can take hundreds of locations in a day, and all the researcher has to do to retrieve them is click a button. For example, the video below shows a fast-fowarded 8 months of the life of one adult male puma, M2, from July 2017-March 2018. After fitting the collar to M2 (which is no easy task and surely a topic for subsequent post) all I have to do is wait and let the collar do the work.
While watching the video above notice how every-so-often the stream of points pauses, with points accumulating in a pile in one location before the laser-like line jets off again over the landscape. What do you guess might explain these pauses? If you guessed a feeding site, you are correct. We call these piles of points "clusters" and they are the cue that a puma's behavior has changed, that something has happened which has caused the puma to break from it's normal pattern of peregrination and stay in one place. This can be because the animal is hunting, resting, giving birth or nursing kittens, ailing or recovering from an injury, or feeding on a kill or scavenging on a found carcass. In the life of a puma (particularly a male) by far the most common reason for a "clustering" of GPS-locations is that the puma has made a kill and is feeding on it.
Investigating these clusters has been at the core of many fascinating puma studies and allows us to ask and answer many interesting questions...
What do pumas eat?
How long do they feed on a kill?
How often do they kill?
How much of a kill do they consume?
How much is "donated" to scavengers?
Which scavengers benefit from puma kills?
How do pumas alter their behavior where they are subordinate to dominant scavengers such as Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, Wolves and Jaguars?
Do pumas share kills with other pumas?
All of these questions and more either have been or are currently being examined by researchers throughout the Americas. Which brings us to another important and impressive fact about pumas, which is their distribution.
Covering more than 110 latitudinal degrees, the puma has the 2nd largest distribution of any terrestrial animal on earth, out-matched only by the Gray Wolf (Canis lupis) whose range, while larger in terms of square miles, is far less impressive in the diversity of habitats occupied when compared to that of the puma. While wolves are almost entirely a creature of the Northern hemisphere's mediterranean-arctic climates, pumas occupy territories in boreal forests, Mexican deserts, Costa Rican jungles, Andean steppes and the hills of Los Angeles.
The other thing you might have noticed in the video of M2's travels is just how big of an area he roams - over 210 square miles of wilderness and national forest, ranging in elevation from 400' to 6900'. To put this in perspective, a typical male deer's home range is about 1 square mile, leopard's about 30 square miles, a tiger's 40 square miles, and a black bear's between 5-60 square miles. And male pumas can cover their entire home-range in a week while looking for prey and females to mate with.
This reveals the fallacy behind a common misconception, and something I hear from folks all the time. I call it the "a-cougar-lives-in-my-backyard" phenomenon. Watch the video of M2's movements again and look at the spot on the map labeled "Orleans" - a town consisting of several hundred people's yards - and you will begin to understand that no puma "lives" in anyone's yard. A puma may visit your yard, but seldom will one linger. Future posts will dive into the controversy, misconceptions and solutions to human-puma conflict.
Pumas are fiercely territorial, but before we discuss what that means for pumas it might be good to clear up some misconceptions about the word "territorial". Often times I hear this word used in reference to an animal attack on a human - "The grizzly attacked because the hiker entered her territory!" - this is inaccurate. Grizzlies attack because someone enters their personal space and they feel threatened by that person's proximity to the them, not because you dared to trespass through their favorite berry patch. I think territoriality gets confused with the human idea of land-ownership, which is a much more possessive notion. Territoriality in wildlife is perhaps more accurately considered as a social system of which there are multitudinous varieties and shades of gray between them all.
In the case of pumas, the social system is structured around the following biological premises.
Females need a home-range that has a prey-population of sufficient density and "catchability" (technical term) so as to allow them to raise litters of kittens to independence.
Males need a home-range that has a prey-population of sufficient density and catchability so as to allow them to meet their own energetic demands, AND they need to have access to a sufficient number of females so that they may sire as many offspring as feasible in the course of their lifetimes (It follows from this that male pumas would have larger home-ranges than females).
Due to the relatively low fecundity of pumas as a species (extremely successful mother pumas can expect to raise 3 kittens every two years if all goes well -which it usually does NOT) male pumas must be vigilantly aware of mating opportunities and be quick to capitalize on the moment.
Thus, in evolutionary terms, it simply will not do to have another male sneaking around the back half of your home-range impregnating half of the females on the sly.
Thus if you are a male puma and you find another male in your home-range, it is to your significant evolutionary advantage to persuade him to leave by whatever means necessary - and if that doesn't work, kill him.
Finally, because females never have to question if their offspring are indeed their own and females do not pose a threat to one another's breeding opportunities they are much more tolerant of each other, and tend to have home-ranges that overlap to some degree.
Following from point 5 it is not uncommon for male pumas to fight when they encounter each other and these interactions can be brutal, debilitating and even fatal. Adult male pumas can almost always be told apart from one another despite the lack of distinctive stripes or spot patterns thanks to the menagerie of scars, gouges and torn-off bits that they accumulate throughout their lives when they meet their male neighbors. The male puma below has sure met his fair share of neighbors, and has the scars to prove it. Here he scrapes with his hind feet to leave an olfactory message - a tip for females as to where he has been and where he might be soon. The communication of pumas and many other animals is far more complex than we currently understand and this topic will be explored in detail in future posts.
The large home ranges of pumas and the intrepid and territorial nature of their lives results in a biological fact which has earned pumas their reputation for being incredibly elusive, and it's not some supernatural power of camouflage or stealth, or a tendency to seek out only the thickest most remote areas. In fact, the explanation for pumas elusive nature may be the most obvious yet least exciting reason - there are simply not very many of them on the landscape. Now that is NOT to say that their numbers are unnaturally low or that the species is at risk (although in some places this is true) - this is simply how puma populations work. Pumas typically occur at densities anywhere from 1 to 3 per 100 square miles, although exceptional populations significantly below and above this range exist. And thus your chances of being in the same place as a puma at any given time are very low to begin with, and when by chance you do find yourself standing in the same acre of woods as a puma ninety-nine times out of one hundred you will never know it is there - which may sound ominous but remember, the puma you never see is the puma you need not fear.
I want to conclude this first post on pumas with a reminder of the animal that they really are, free of any human judgments, good or bad, that we have grown so accustomed to seeing them through. There are vegan animal rights activists, trigger-happy poachers, and everything in between but regardless of which side you are on these are all just human opinions - feelings - about an animal. And sometimes the most die-hard proponents of either stance don't seem to have a reality-based understanding of the animal they are fighting for or against, or much of a genuine curiosity to learn about it.
To free an animal of human judgments we must look at it in terms of it's place in the ecosystem in which it lives and ask the question, what forces shaped this animal to become the creature we see today? The more time I spend studying animals the more I begin to see them as a function of the landscape. Rather than permanent and distinct fixtures of the universe (like gravity or photons) I see animal species as ever-changing, fleeting incarnations of the forces around them like shapes in clouds, shifting and swirling in accordance with the heat of the sun, evaporation of the oceans, and myriad other forces.
To understand what forces shaped pumas we need to know what the world was like for the hundreds of thousands of years during which pumas were becoming pumas, via the slow-motion chiseling of natural selection. The puma's closest living relative is the Jaguarundi, a smaller wild cat found in Central and South America, who shared a common ancestor with the puma somewhere between five and nine million years ago according to genetic evidence. So what was life like in the Americas between five million years ago and when the first human set foot in North America some 15,000 years ago? Well, it was a heck of a lot bigger.
Dire wolves, short-faced bears, american lions, american cheetahs, saber-toothed cats, and 8 foot-tall 300 pound "terror birds" are just some of the formidable megafauna that shared the land with pumas as recently as 15,000 years ago. And while 15,000 years may seem like a long time to you and I, it is but a blink of the evolutionary eye and pumas 15,000 years ago were no doubt nearly identical to their contemporary counterparts.
Today we see a world largely bereft of terrestrial megafauna, and any contemporary list of North American "mega-carnivores" would surely have pumas near the top. But for the last 5 million years pumas would have actually been at the bottom, or middle at best, of the rankings. For the vast majority of their evolution pumas would have faced tremendous competition from a wide variety of extraordinarily powerful and dominant carnivores. To these megacarnivores of the Pleistocene and Oligocene, pumas would have been truly subordinate - forced to sacrifice many of their kills when discovered by larger scavengers, and always aware of the presence of animals who may indeed make a meal out of them.
How did pumas cope with such fierce competition? They evolved to keep a low profile, to use stealth and concealment to their advantage, and to back away from most confrontations before their adversary even knows they are there. Hence, the puma you never see is the puma you need not fear. So next time you are walking in the woods and you feel a prickle on the back of your neck, and the thought of that big tawny cat comes into your mind and suddenly you feel afraid, remember - more often than not, so is she. And please don't take that to be in anyway disregarding the seriousness and reality of puma attacks on humans, which although exceedingly rare do occur and are obviously devastating for the people involved. Instead think of this knowledge as a tool in your woodsman's toolbox that allows you to see an animal more clearly and experience the wild not as a nervous tourist, but as an informed participant.
F3, a participant in the Hoopa Puma Project, carries her kittens one at a time to a new den site.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I look forward to writing many more posts on mountain lions and other creatures, and I welcome any criticism, feedback or further questions.
All images and videos copyright Phil Johnston 2019, except where otherwise noted