Contributed by Elizabeth Rasheed
New research shows that pumas—the “solitary” mountains lions revered for their stealth and predatory prowess—are much more social than previously thought. As with other solitary carnivores, scientists had long assumed that these cats led highly isolated lives within the bounds of their own territories, and that their infrequent interactions were only to mate or defend territory. However, data obtained by Mark Elbroch and the Teton Cougar Project of big cat conservation group Panthera demonstrates that pumas might “regularly, predictably, and even strategically engage in social interactions with their peers.” In the study, Elbroch and his team tagged 13 pumas with GPS trackers and filmed and documented their behavior over the course of three years. Not only was the team astonished by the high number of conspecific interactions observed (118!), but they were shocked to discover that more than 60% of these interactions were shared feedings—pumas from one territory sharing the carcass of a large animal killed by a puma in an overlapping or neighboring territory. What was most fascinating about the study, however, was that the GPS trackers allowed the researchers to identify which puma had made the kill and which had benefitted from the social tolerance and free food. As it turns out, the strongest predictor of puma food-sharing patterns was direct reciprocity. If one puma allowed a second to feed from its kill, the second was 7.7 times more likely to allow the first to feed from one of their own kills later.
As a New York Times synopsis of the paper summarized, the revelation that pumas are living in complex social networks built on reciprocal resource-sharing raises new questions about the impacts that hunting may have on these puma communities. These reciprocal social networks typically consist of one adult male and several females (and kittens). The territorial bounds of the male, who may provide protection to females and their kittens, appeared to determine the structure of social interactions amongst the other females. Thus, trophy hunts that specifically target adult male pumas could have a cascade of disruptive and adverse social impacts that cause far more harm than can be captured or considered by population modelling. In light of this new information, conservation and management plans for pumas need to start accounting for the strong importance of affiliation—the seventh capability outlined in Martha Nussbaum’s Central Capabilities Approach—in the lives and wellbeing of these powerful and fascinating cats.
The full study, published the Wednesday in the prestigious journal Science Advances, can be read and downloaded here.