Project Puma: How Cougars are Better for our Health

How can a wild animal like a mountain lion be better for our health? We have all heard about the web of life, how all things are connected, and that there is a natural balance within an ecosystem. Pumas show us how removing part of that system shifts that balance and creates a system that is more detrimental to us people.

Let’s first look at the web of life that a puma lives in:

The web of life for a Puma (very simplified)

The web of life for a Puma (very simplified)

In this very simplified (though accurate) system, pumas feed primarily on deer, which in turn feed on grass. Besides mountain lions, deer only have humans as predators (and sometimes the odd coyote), but are parasitised by lots of organisms including ticks. The mountain lions keep deer numbers in check, which in turn keeps tick numbers in check, as does it keep grass from being under-abundant. (If you are a school teacher and would like to incorporate this concept into your curriculum, contact Felidae Conservation Fund for their CAT Aware Program).

Let’s look at this same system on the east coast of the United States, where Cougars are no longer found.

Web of life without the Puma

Web of life without the Puma

Without the pumas, deer numbers have grown tremendously, these animals in turn feed on the local vegetation, which leads to overgrazing since their numbers are too large. More importantly for us people, because there are more deer, there are more ticks that feed on those deer.

This is where the health aspect comes in. Ticks carry disease, including Lyme disease. With more ticks present, there may not be a larger percentage of ticks that carry Lyme disease but there will be a larger number of individuals that are vectors of it. Due to the fact that cougars are not controlling deer numbers on the east coast, more Lyme disease carrying ticks are around, which leads to a higher rate of incidence for the disease in the area.

Let me illustrate the point with some maps.

Tick species ranges that carry Lyme disease in the US

Tick species ranges that carry Lyme disease in the US

In the US, both the Black-legged Tick (Ixodes scapularis)  and the Western Black-legged Tick (Ixodes pacificus) carry and transmit Lyme disease.

This is the area in which Lyme disease has the highest incidence rate (or, where it happens the most):

The fifteen states with the highest incidence rate of Lyme disease in the US

The fifteen states with the highest incidence rate of Lyme disease in the US (see Lyme Disease Association Analysis) — the darker the red the higher the number of incidences

As you can clearly see, the highest chance of infection is limited to the east Coast.

Now let’s look where Pumas currently live in accordance with the above data:

Mountain Lion presence and their relation to Lyme disease infection

Mountain Lion presence and their relation to Lyme disease infection

Even though Lyme disease and their vectors are present on the west coast of the US, mountain lions keep the tick numbers low (by keeping the deer numbers lower), therefore creating an overall healthier system for people. More mountain lions eventually means a lower chance of getting Lyme disease.

Historically, cougars used to occupy the east coast where Lyme disease is so prevalent now, but they were extirpated from the region in the early 1900′s. Could a case be made for re-introducing cougars to the east coast, now that they have been gone from the region for hundreds of years? Is there even space for them? Even though the western United States has greater areas of fully protected land, the eastern states still have plenty of habitat for pumas as well.

US population density - Copyright Ian Offord

US population density – Copyright Ian Offord

The population density map shows that cougars have no space left on the eastern coast, nor would you want them to wander into New York City or Boston, but once you are more inland, the population density is low enough where you can have successful co-existence between these cats and people. Having an action plan would help of course but even naturally, pumas are moving more and more east as time passes. Maybe sooner than later, Lyme disease will be less of an issue in the States, and all due to a wild cat.

 

Atlantic Puffins of Skomer Island

The largest breeding colony of Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) south of Scotland is on Skomer Island, on the western coast of Wales. Over 10,000 pairs breed in underground burrows here. Sometimes they burrow the holes they lay their eggs in themselves, sometimes they simply kick out the rabbit that was using it before (considering the size difference, that is an amazing feat). All of the burrows are close to the coastal cliffs. This means they can take flight easily if danger approaches (in the form of Peregrine Falcons) and there isn’t much time for gulls to steal the catch the puffins are bringing back to their chicks between landing and disappearing underground.

The Breeding Colony:

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) group at coastal breeding colony, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) group at coastal breeding colony, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Puffins at their Burrows:

IMG_117237_Atlantic_Puffin_United_Kingdom_Sebastian_Kennerknecht

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) at nest burrow at sunrise, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

IMG_116900_Atlantic_Puffin_United_Kingdom_Sebastian_Kennerknecht

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) at nest burrow, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

IMG_116908_Atlantic_Puffin_United_Kingdom_Sebastian_Kennerknecht

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) at nest burrow, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

To collect food for their one chick (also called a pufflling), they forage in relatively close waters (most within 7km from this colony) by diving underwater and catching small fish. They collect multiple fish at one time by pressing the caught ones to their upper mandible with their tongue (amazing or what!?!). Eleven species of fish are common prey (mostly sandeels), but up to twenty four different species of fish have been recorded to be used as food by these guys.

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Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) carrying fish prey, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

When on land without fish, they engage in a few different behaviors.

Like many other birds, a male and female pair bond by touching their bills together in a behavior called billing.

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Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) pair billing, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Flapping their wings is also quite easily seen. Ornithologists interpret this as both a comfort and/or displacement behavior.

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Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) flapping wings, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

When you are this cute, it’s understandable when one needs a rest.

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Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) resting, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Towards the late evening, you may start seeing individuals head-flicking, which is a way to communicate between individuals and may partially serve to synchronize the departure from the colony.

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Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) head-flicking, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

The amazing thing about this particular colony is that the puffins let you get extremely close, often even running right by your feet. Scientists on the island are currently figuring out if our human presence is having a negative impact on the Puffins. Instinctively, I would wager that to be the case but I talked to one scientist who said it may be balanced by the fact that our presence often dissuades the gulls from coming in and stealing the puffins caught fish. I sure hope that’s the case and I am interested to hear the final results of that study. At the very least, it allows for amazing portrait opportunities.

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) in breeding plumage, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) in breeding plumage, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) at sunrise, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) at sunrise, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

I really didn’t feel like I had enough time to hang out with these amazing creatures and only tried for a few minutes to get a flight shot.

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) flying, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) flying, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

or a on the water shot for that matter.

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) on water, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) on water, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

If you want to see more Puffin pictures from the trip, click here, if you want a free desktop wallpaper, check out this blog post.

Free Nature Wallpaper for Download – Atlantic Puffin

Aren’t Atlantic Puffins just the cutest? These amazing seabirds are the penguins of the north, at least that’s what they remind me of. Like most seabirds, they really only come ashore to breed. This individual was photographed on Skomer Island in Wales. The Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) build their burrows into the soft earth between the flowers, to which they return to feed their chicks or to roost at night.

As always, just click on the image for the wallpaper sized image or use this link Atlantic Puffin.

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) in breeding plumage, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) in breeding plumage, Skomer Island National Nature Reserve, Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales, United Kingdom

Most Endangered Cats in the World

Being cat obsessed, I always want to find out more about these amazing animals. So recently I was searching for the most endangered felines in the world. I ended up finding conflicting results (I think this is partially due to the fact that listing certain species is ‘sexier’ than others and that some addressed subspecies while others did not). So I decided to do my own research. It took some time, looking up every subspecies of wild cat, but it was well worth it.  And now, in honor of Endangered Species Day, which was this last Friday I decided to put together a list of the ten most endangered felines in the world. Now a list depends on the parameters set and since the exact numbers of breeding individuals for many subspecies or even species is not known, I will deal only with the numbers that are known.

This is the overall list of the most endangered wild cats in the world, including subspecies and species.

1. South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis)

South China Tiger Silhouette
Status: Critically Endangered, most likely Extinct in the Wild
Population Size: 72* (Captive Only)
Population Trend: Unknown


2. Amur Leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis)

Amur Leopard Silhouette

Status: Critically Endangered
Population Size: Below 50
Population Trend: Decreasing


3. Asiatic Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus)Asiatic Cheetah Silhouette Status: Critically Endangered
Population Size: 50-100
Population Trend: Decreasing


4. Balkan Lynx (Lynx lynx martinoi)

Balkan Lynx SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size: ~ 80-105
Population Trend: Decreasing


5. Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus)

Iberian Lynx SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size: ~ 84-143
Population Trend: Decreasing


6. Iriomote Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis iriomotensis)Iriomate Cat SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size: ~ 100
Population Trend: Decreasing


7. Arabian Leopard (Panthera pardus nimr)

Arabian Leopard SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size: Below 200
Population Trend: Decreasing


8. Javan Leopard (Panthera pardus melas)

Javan Leopard SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size: Below 250
Population Trend: Decreasing


9. Barbary Serval (Leptailurus serval constantinus)Barbary Serval SilhouetteStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size: Below 250
Population Trend: Decreasing


10. Northwest African Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki)

Northwest African CheetahStatus: Critically Endangered
Population Size: Below 250
Population Trend: Decreasing


There are a few really interesting things to note when looking at this list. One thing for example is that all of these subspecies and species’ population numbers are decreasing (except of course the South China Tiger since there is no more wild population), and maybe a case could be made for the Amur Leopard, whose numbers have been increasing slightly as of late. This downward trend is really not a great sign for the survival of these cats in the long run. In fact at the species level the only felid that is increasing in population is the domestic cat!

Another interesting thing is that six out of the ten cats are larger cats (though not all of them are classified as Big Cats). Larger animals require larger areas to contain enough prey to sustain themselves. As their habitat is constantly disappearing so do their numbers decrease. The only plus side of this is that if we can protect these large cats, so do we protect lots of habitat not only for them but many other animals as well.

Another thing to note is that only one species (not subspecies) has made the list, the Iberian Lynx. It proves how threatened of extinction this animal really is. Some tiger and lion subspecies have gone extinct due to humans in recent times, but if the Iberian Lynx was to disappear for good, it would be the first cat species to go extinct since the Saber-toothed Cat, which died out 11,000 years ago.

Finally, another great thing in creating this list was to discover the Balkan Lynx, a subspecies of Eurasian Lynx I had never heard of! I always enjoy learning more so if there are topics about wild cats that you would like to hear about, let me know in the comments!

Project Puma: Depredation Numbers in California and Possible Conclusions

On June 5th, 1990 California voters passed Proposition 117, enacting the California Wildlife Protection Act which designated the Mountain Lion a Specifically Protected Mammal in the state. This subsequently made it unlawful to take, possess, transport, import or sell any mountain lion or part or product thereof. Hurray for the mountain lion! (How are we the only state to have passed such a bill still bewilders me). So with this act being in place how do we still hear about cougars being killed in people’s backyards or when an animal ventures to close to a neighborhood? The answer is simple, the act allows certain departments (like the police) to kill any puma that is perceived to be an imminent threat to public health or safety. The mountain lions killed by people in California you hear way less about are the ones shot since they are perceived to be a threat to livestock or are believed to have killed or injured livestock previously. When this situation arises, the livestock owner has to apply for a depredation permit from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Once they acknowledge the damage was indeed done by a mountain lion they issue a permit to take that lion out (aka kill it). The department has been keeping track of the number of permits issued and the number of animals subsequently taken with those permits since 1972. The numbers are quite interesting, and so is a drawn up California map from those numbers.

Number of legally killed Mountain Lions per California County from 1972 to 2013

Number of legally killed Mountain Lions per California County from 1972 to 2013

So what do these numbers actually tell us? I am no statistician but I think we can draw a few conclusions from this when looking at the above map and comparing that to the Mountain Lions range in California (see below).

Mountain Lion Habitat in California. Source: Nature Mapping

Mountain Lion Habitat in California. Source: Nature Mapping

The obvious conclusion is that mountain lions are only taken where they are actually able to occur (for example no mountain lion has been killed in San Francisco county since 1972 because there is no habitat for them there), what may be more interesting is to look at the possible habitat and then see where the most depredation takes place. Assuming that a mountain lion would attack livestock with the same likelihood no matter what kind of other external pressures its faced with (though this is of course impossible), you would conclude from the map that there are simply more mountain lions in the northern part of California, in the Big Sur area, and along the western part of the Sierras. This especially makes sense when you look at counties like San Mateo, Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara. All three counties are considered being mountain lion habitat, yet the depredation permit numbers are not very high. Is this because all three counties are heavily populated and there are simply less lions there than say Mendocino County? Is it because there is less livestock in these areas? What conclusions do you draw from this? Can we say that this means that counties like Siskyou or Shasta have the highest population numbers of pumas for California?

Another interesting thing to look at is number of animals actually killed compared to permits issued. I drew up another map to look at this comparison.

Percentage of Mountain Lions taken in comparison to depredation permits issued per  California County from 1972 to 2013

Percentage of Mountain Lions taken in comparison to depredation permits issued per
California County from 1972 to 2013

This map shows that no matter what county a permit is issued in, on average, about half of the issued permits result in a dead lion. Interestingly Siskyou county again is on the higher end of the scale with 66% of permits resulting in a dead lion. For there to be a dead lion, there needs to be a live lion in the first place, with that I simply want to say that it again seems to show that the northern counties in California may boast the highest mountain lion numbers. Livestock predation would most likely be caused by transient animals, individuals that have only recently become independent from their mother and that are desperately looking for food, or older individuals which have difficulty hunting wild game. With such high numbers of animals being killed in these northern counties, it seems that the overall adult breeding population is doing better there than the more central and southern parts of the state.

Finally we can take a look at the change in number of animals legally taken over the 41 years of records.

Pumas Legally Killed in California from 1972-2013

Pumas Legally Killed in California from 1972-2013

What’s interesting here is to see how drastically the number of animals killed increased from 1972 until 2000, with the 1990 ban not seeming to have an impact on the trend. This could partially be because the number of animals actually increased and therefore there was a higher chance of there being conflict with livestock, or that the ban had no impact what so ever. The other interesting thing is that there has been a tremendous decrease in the number of animals killed since 2007. Is this because pumas are avoiding livestock or simply because there are less of them? It seems to be somewhat stable now, which may imply that the overall California population may be stable as well.

Since we don’t have numbers for the actual population size of mountain lions in California, nor do we have numbers for areas with the highest population sizes, these depredation numbers may give us the best idea of whats going on with the population overall.

Sources:
Department of Fish and Wildlife – County Mountain Lion Depredation Annual Statistics – http://www.dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/lion/dep-statistics.html