‘Solitary’ Pumas Actually Have Complex Social Lives

Story at-a-glance -

  • It was long thought that pumas were solitary animals that come together only during courtship and mating, territory disputes or raising young — and otherwise actively avoid other cats
  • Via GPS trackers fitted to 13 pumas, which allowed researchers to track the animals’ whereabouts in real time, they discovered that the cats regularly interact
  • From April 2012 to March 2015, every cat socialized with other pumas, often coming together to share a meal
  • Pumas were nearly eight times more likely to share a meal with a puma who had shared a meal with them previously, an occurrence typically only documented in social animals

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Pumas, also known as cougars, mountain lions and panthers, are large wildcats (the largest variety in the U.S.) that range from Canada to Argentina. In the U.S., about 30,000 pumas are estimated to live in the western states.1 It was long thought that these powerful creatures were solitary animals that come together only during courtship and mating, territory disputes or raising young — and otherwise actively avoid other cats.

It turns out, however, that this assumption may actually be a myth. "People just made a lot of assumptions based on very little data, and those assumptions became mythology, even within the science world,” Dr. Mark Elbroch of Panthera, a wildcat conservation organization, told NPR.2 He and colleagues used GPS trackers to reveal that pumas have far more complex social lives than anyone imagined.

Not-so-Solitary Pumas Have Regular Get-Togethers

Via GPS trackers fitted to 13 pumas, which allowed the researchers to track the animals’ whereabouts in real time, they discovered that the cats regularly interact. In fact, from April 2012 to March 2015, every cat socialized with other pumas, often coming together to share a meal.3

The first sign that pumas aren’t loners after all came early on in the study, when Elbroch noticed two female pumas with kittens that were approaching a similar location. Upon closer inspection, the location turned out to be the site of a dead elk, and the pumas stayed in the area for two days. According to Elbroch:4

"They sort of just sat at either ends of the carcass and weren't particularly friendly to each other. They just sat there and ate. And the kittens would bounce in and feed when they could … I can't explain how exciting it was for me to capture, for the first time, an interaction between adult mountain lions. It was just so different than what I expected to happen."

The researchers were able to document social interactions between pumas that took place at over 1,000 prey carcasses in Wyoming. What’s more, 242 of the sites had motion-triggered cameras that allowed the researchers to observe the pumas’ behavior together.

Reciprocity: Pumas Share Food With Those Who Shared With Them in the Past

All of the pumas shared food over the course of the study, but, interestingly, they were somewhat choosy about who they shared their food with, preferring to reciprocate a meal to those who had shared with them in the past. Overall, pumas were nearly eight times more likely to share a meal with a puma who had shared a meal with them previously. “This is usually only documented with social animals,” a UC Davis press release noted.5

Differences were noted between males and females as well, with male pumas receiving the lion’s share of “free meat” while female pumas likely received other benefits from the relationships, perhaps helping to facilitate mating opportunities. Insights into puma territories were also seen, with social groups existing in territorial ranges associated with individual males.

“Female cougars with ranges overlapping the same male's range were more likely to socially interact than if their ranges didn't ‘share’ the same male,” National Geographic reported.6 The findings also raise questions about trophy hunting and what happens in an area if a male is suddenly removed from the territory. Does social upheaval result and, if so, “Do we allow trophy hunting to continue? Do we adopt new strategies?” Elbroch asked.

Are Other ‘Solitary’ Carnivores Also Social?

Out of the 245 terrestrial carnivores, 177 of them are described as solitary,7 but Elbroch’s study calls this into question. “This opens the door to enormous possibilities,” he said. “Are pumas everywhere behaving the same, or only in areas with large prey? Are other species like leopards and wolverines and so many others acting the same way? There is so much more to discover about the rich, secret social lives of wild creatures.”8

Additional research by Elbroch and colleagues has also uncovered that pumas are not the apex predators in their region, instead being subordinate to other apex predators more than 47 percent of the time.9

Evidence suggests that pumas are subordinate to wolves, grizzly bears, black bears and jaguars, but dominant over coyotes and maned wolves. As for why this matters, it could have implications for conservation and management, since pumas are often hunted by humans to reduce interactions with people and livestock.

“Should we reduce human hunting where dominant competitors like wolves and bears make puma lives more difficult, or, at minimum, reduce hunting where dominant competitors are expanding their range into areas where pumas were the top carnivore?” Elbroch asked.10

As written in PeerJ, it’s known that subordinate pumas “change their habitat use, suffer displacement at food sources, likely experience increased energetic demands from harassment, exhibit increased starvation and are sometimes directly killed in competitive interactions with dominant competitors.”11

Discovering more about puma’s place in the food chain, as well as how they interact socially, will be important for protecting pumas, a notoriously elusive species. Elbroch explained:12

“[I]t’s incredibly difficult to determine what is a ‘sustainable’ puma hunt and what is not. Instead, puma management must be reactionary, carefully following populations to determine whether they are in decline, and rapidly adjusting hunting pressure accordingly.

Puma populations, unfortunately, are very difficult and very expensive to track, so declines may go undetected for some time. Therefore, we recommend reducing puma hunting in areas where wolves and grizzly bears are expanding their range, until we know for certain how pumas will be affected by these species.”

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