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.

 

Aptos Pumas Mating Pair

Like most other felines, pumas live a rather solitary life. The only prolonged periods of time multiple animals spend time together is the 15 month period (on average) cubs spend with their mother.Though undoubtedly there are instances where cougars run into each other (like at a kill, for example when these two females with cubs met) but those encounters seem to be avoided by communication through various olfactory, visual, and auditory signs. Those same signs however can also be clues left by a female to signal a male she is sexually receptive. Researchers believe that urine marks and vocalizing are the primary ways a female advertises her ‘availability’. This vocalization is what is referred to as caterwauling and it is quite an impressive sound. Have a listen:

Audio of Female Cougar in Heat

That would get my attention as well, though I wouldn’t want to necessarily go towards the sound.

Female mountain lions have an estrus of four to twelve days with an average of seven to eight days (data from captive studies). This is a rather short period of time for a male to find a female when you occupy as large of home ranges as they do, so it makes sense to create an obvious ‘hey, I am right here!’ kind of signal. Once they do find each other a breeding pair will stay together for one to sixteen days with one to four days being most typical. After the business is done the male will leave again (I know, I know, typical male behavior….).

So, is this meet up of two mountain lions a mating pair in the pictures below. The mountain lion front and center is our resident female, Artemis (named so after the Greek goddess of the hunt, based on her forehead mark resembling Artemis’s bow — can you tell my girlfriend came up with that one??) but if you look carefully on the right there is another puma, a rather large puma, sitting off to the side.

Mountain Lions in Aptos, California Taken: July 13th, 2011 @ 5:34pm

Mountain Lions in Aptos, California Taken: July 13th, 2011 @ 5:34pm

Mountain Lion Pair in Aptos, California

Mountain Lion Pair in Aptos, California

Mountain Lion Pair in Aptos, California

Mountain Lion Pair in Aptos, California

Is it a male? What do you think? If it is indeed a male and breeding was successful then we may have kittens starting around about October 15th of this year….time will tell!

Bibliography:

Ross, P.I. and M.G. Jalkotzy. 1992. Characteristics of a hunted population of cougars in southwestern Alberta. Journal of Wildlife Managment. 56:417-426

Mehrer, C.F. 1975. Some aspects of reproduction in captive mountain lions Felis concolor, bobcats Lynx rufus, and lynx Lynx canadensis. Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Dakote, Grand Forks.

Rabb, G.B. 1959. Reproductive and vocal behavior in captive mountain lions.

Seidensticker, J.C., M.G. Hornocker, W.V. Wiles, and J.P. Messick. 1973. Mountain Lion social organization in the Idaho Primitive Area. Wildlife Monogram 35: 1-60

Audio Courtesy of Felidae Conservation Fund.

Identifying Puma Gender by Genital Spots

How do you identify the gender of a puma? This is one of those cases where I realize how little I know and how little experience I have in regards to Mountain Lions. I am sure an experienced puma biologists could look at the picture below and say, duh, that’s a male, or duh, that’s a female…well even after doing some more research I once again have no clue.

Mountain Lion Rear View

Mountain Lion Rear View

Mountain Lion Rear View Close Up

Mountain Lion Rear View Close Up

From Ken Logan and Linda Sweanor’s 2001 “Determining the Sex of Treed Cougars“:

“Male adult and subadult cats have a conspicuous black spot of hair, about 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter surrounding the opening to the penis sheath behind the hind legs and about 4 inches (10 cm) below the anus. The anus is usually hidden by the base of the tail. In between the anus and black spot is the scrotum, which is covered with light to dark brown hair and will usually appear as another dark spot.”

“Female adult and subadult cats do not have this conspicuous black spot of hair. The area is entirely covered in white hair. The anus is directly below the base of the tail and the vulva is directly underneath the anus. Both the anus and the vulva will usually be hidden by the base of the tail.”

So my guess would be female, but then there is that little amount of dark hair just to the left of the tail, but is that too close to the anus. What do you think?

Note: This image was taken two weeks (almost down to the minute) after the second image from the Aptos Mountain Lion Characters Post

Aptos Mountain Lion Characters

As many of you have noticed I am completely and utterly fascinated by mountain lions, pumas, cougars, catamounts, or what ever you like to call them (did the webpage url and logo give that away???). It has always been my fascination getting pictures of them and seeing them in the wild. Though i have been able to get images, I have never seen one in nature (how is that possible you ask — camera traps!).

As anyone with any obsession, I can’t get enough information about them. Absolutely everything interests me about them including home range size, territoriality, density, prey species, den sites, when cubs leave their mother’s home range, and the list just keeps going on. I am telling you this as a forewarning for future posts under the Project Puma heading that will have anything and everything to do with mountain lions whether that is information or pictures just in case there is someone else as interested in this beautiful cat as I am.

This post is also supposed to serve as an introduction to the cat(s) of the area I camera trap in Aptos near Santa Cruz in the Monterey Bay area. As of right now there are two camera traps out there and I have gotten mountain lion pictures on three different occasions. I am not completely sure whether it is the same cat or different cats so I figured I’d ask you guys. Here are the three pictures followed by close-ups in the same order.

Juvenile Mountain Lion Walking at Night

Taken on June 8th, 2010 at 4:35am

Taken December 25, 2010 at 9:31pm

Taken December 25, 2010 at 9:31pm

Taken March 5th, 2011 at 6:32am

Taken March 5th, 2011 at 6:32am

Juvenile Mountain Lion at Night-Sebastian Kennerknecht - Close-upMountain Lion at Night-Sebastian Kennerknecht-Close upMountain Lion walking over log close up-Sebastian Kennerknecht

Is it all the same cat, I really don’t know. In other cat species researchers use the spotting pattern which is unique to each cat to identify them. For Puma concolor (the scientific name of the mountain lion meaning cat of one color) this isn’t really an option. What I was looking at is the black marking around the mouth, the black whisker markings, and the shape of the ears. Nothing leads me to say that its the same cat or different cats (in the second image, that is a tick in the ear, sadly not something to identify the cat by) — do you see something I am not? One thing for sure is that the second cat is much bulkier than the first, but the images were also captured months apart.

An interesting thing to note are the few faint slightly darker spots on the back leg of the first image, which could give us some clues of its age. Puma kittens are completely spotted loosing these marks as they become older. By ten months, the markings are difficult to see except on the hindquarters. The eyes turn from a light blue as kittens to yellow brown as adults (this change is complete by sixteen months). Young pumas are independent around 15 months (with a range of 10 to 18 months) leaving their mother’s territory and searching for their own. Based on the fact that I had not captured an image of a puma before this individual (for a period of 8 months) and its morphology it leads me to believe that this must be a juvenile looking for its own territory. If the second and third image are of the same cat, then I am glad to know its doing well in its new home!

SLR Camera Trap Photography

Photographing wildlife with a SLR camera trap seems easy in concept. Place a camera trap in the wilderness, let it sit there, and have it take amazing pictures while you rest at home. This isn’t quite the case. One of the hardest parts about camera trap photography is getting your set-up to work like you want it to. The camera and flashes have to be ready to take a picture at moments notice, but need to also conserve batteries enough to last for an extended period of time. And then everything has to be safe in a serious down drench. Finally the biggest challenge of all is that you can’t buy professional camera traps at a store, ready to use out of the box. Even national geographic cameras use customized set-ups.

For inspiration, visit two of my favorite blogs. Chris Wemmer’s blog Camera Trap Codger which is not only filled with witty, educational, and fun writing but also accompanied by great camera trap images; as well as Jake Kirkland and Christian’s Camera Trapping Campus blog, filled with great stories and it hits close to home for me since I also got my degree from UCSC. All of them ‘hack’ much of their equipment to function for the camera trapping needs!

Once you have the equipment figured out the really fun part starts. Its time to hit the field to select your location for your camera trap. Natural game paths are always a perfect option, they provide ample chances for wildlife to walk by. During set-up, take the appropriate time since there can’t be any quick adjustments made once the camera is in place. Using yourself always works:

Myself, getting some test shots in - reminder, comb your hair next time...

Myself, getting some test shots in – reminder, comb your hair next time…

After you are done setting up you want to leave it be, it will take a while for your smell to be masked by nature’s more natural smells and some time for the animals to get used to the new objects in their environment (don’t think they don’t know its there).

After some time you will get your first shots. In the beginning most likely just your neighbors pet:

Neighbors dog checking out the camera

Neighbors dog checking out the camera

Maybe even some behavioral images:

Mule deer buck licking front leg

Mule deer buck licking front leg

Of course many times you will get another curious human:

This one is having quite a lot of fun!

This one is having quite a lot of fun!

In the end though, when you get a shot like this, you are quite the happy camper:

Juvenile Mountain Lion at Night

Juvenile Mountain Lion at Night

When ever you go to check the camera and replace batteries its like Christmas. You don’t know what you will get except a bunch of happy surprises. Camera trapping is a great way to get an intimate view into the lives of animals you may hardly see. It is something I very much cherish.