Hunters or Hunted? Wolves vs. Mountain Lions

F109, a six-year-old cougar, nursing three three-week-old kittens. She wears a Vectronics satellite collar which allows researchers to follow her movements in near real time and study the secret lives of mountain lions. Photograph by Mark Elbroch/Panthera

Wolves are coursing, social predators that operate in packs to select disadvantaged prey in open areas where they can test their prey’s condition. Mountain lions are solitary, ambush predators that select prey opportunistically (i.e., of any health) in areas where slopes, trees, boulders, or other cover gives them an advantage. Thus, wolves and cougars inhabit and utilize different ecological niches, allowing them to spatially and temporally coexist; nevertheless, in the absence of wolves, cougars utilize areas traditionally assumed to be the sole dominion of coursing wolves. This suggests that where wolves are sympatric with cougars, wolves limit mountain lions.

In fact, wolves kill mountain lions. This has never been disputed. Wolves are considered the dominant competitors in most interactions between the species. Take for instance, the Hornocker Institute study of mountain lions in Northern Yellowstone led by Dr. Toni Ruth, in which researchers discovered the remains of three mountain lions killed by wolves. What is contentious is the idea that mountain lions might kill wolves.

Look carefully for the mountain lion in the background, pushed off its kill by a large wolf...caught on remote camera. Credit Teton Cougar project/Panthera
Look carefully for the mountain lion in the background, pushed off its kill by a large wolf caught on remote camera. Photograph courtesy Teton Cougar Project/Panthera

Liz Bradley, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wolf biologist, reports that she has discovered five wolves killed by mountain lions in three years—all bearing the characteristic canine punctures in their skulls betraying the identity of the perpetrator. Some dispute her claims and point out that wolves fight each other too, especially adjacent packs, and that they also attack the head; skeptics believe a canine puncture in a wolf skull could be made by another wolf just as easily as a mountain lion.

The Teton Cougar Project operates in the Southern Yellowstone Ecosystem, and is one of very few long-term studies of mountain lions. Since the start of the project, wolves have trickled into the area, established territories and reproduced. In 2001, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveys estimated that there were about 10 wolves in our study area, and that number steadily increased to as high as 91 in 2010. To date, we’ve documented five lions killed by wolves, all kittens, and all less than six months old while they were still relatively slow to climb and less than fully coordinated. But it was just last October that we finally documented the contrary. For the first time, a mountain lion we were tracking killed a wolf.

She’s a particularly feral mountain lion, F109, an adult female with three three-month-old kittens. All cougars are feral, of course, but there’s something unique about F109. She has “crazy” eyes, and always wanders the most rugged, inhospitable terrain. She was near impossible to catch in the first place. She’s a survivor.

We can’t tell you exactly what happened, but we can describe what we deciphered from the clues left behind in the snow. F109 was up high traversing steep, barren slopes, where we expected there was little game. Nevertheless, her location data indicated that she’d stopped and we suspected she’d made a kill. We slogged up the mountain to investigate, the ground bare of snow adjacent the road, but as deep as our thigh in the high bowl where she lingered. The entire area preceding her position was a mosaic of wolf tracks and trails. A wolf pack made up of adults, subadults and pups had criss-crossed the area, leaving barely a patch of snow without their sign.

Perhaps the wolves had challenged F109, or perhaps just one of them wandered too close to her kittens, or perhaps a pup felt like exploring on its own—trying to decipher the absolute pandemonium of tracks was beyond us. Whatever the circumstances, F109 captured and killed a pup born this year just above the chaos of wolf activity. By this time (November), wolf pups are sizable, their skulls larger than those of coyotes. We discovered the signs of struggle, the telltale blood in the snow, and the pup’s remains beneath a lonely subalpine fir: a pile of coal black fur, bone shards from the legs, and the skull, skinned but completely intact. F109 and her kittens had consumed the pup completely.

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Thus far, our research has supported exactly what everyone  expected: Wolves dominate mountain lions in most encounters. But, this recent exchange is particularly exciting. No longer can we say that wolves dominate mountain lions in all encounters. What circumstances led to F109 turning the tables, we do not know. Perhaps F109’s predecessors served as naïve intermediaries relearning to coexist with a dominant competitor, a species absent since 1926, when the last wolf was killed in Yellowstone National Park. Perhaps F109 is evidence that lions learn quickly and adapt, and that mountain lions will successfully coexist with wolves in the Yellowstone Ecosystem for generations to come.

Mark Elbroch has contributed to puma research in Idaho, Colorado, California, Wyoming, and Chile, and lots of other carnivores along the way. He earned his PhD at the University of California, Davis, where his dissertation research focused on puma ecology in Patagonia in the presence of endangered humeul deer. He has authored/coauthored 10 books on natural history (http://www.amazon.com/Mark-Elbroch/e/B001ILHI96) and numerous scientific articles published in peer-review journals. Mark is currently a Project Leader for Panthera, a US-based non-profit that conducts science to promote wild cat conservation worldwide.
  • jamey nastiuk

    just thinking there`s no way wolves should be able to catch a cougar…maybe it`s the tracker u have around its neck that is making this possible????

    • Mark Elbroch

      Note that on our project, wolves have only caught and killed kittens. In rugged, rocky terrain or where there are sufficient trees, adult cougars can well defend themselves or retreat to safety.

  • arthur veitch

    I have been camera trapping cougars since 1998. Check out BBC camera trap competition 2013. Runners came across a cougar on a dead wolf. Days later, I went to the site and found the head and paws of the wolf. Cat had eaten the rest. The wolf’s skull had canine punctures. Alberta biologists have reported similar kills. Info was passed to Toni Ruth.

  • Cory H

    I think you are on to something Jamey. Those wolves are pretty tech saavy.


    Are you sure that’s possible I know I love wolves but…..

  • BobMc

    I would characterize Puma concolor as stalk and pounce, as opposed to ‘ambush’ (while meaning no disrespect to the great cat researcher Maurice Hornocker). Normally, not wanting to equivocate on a small point of meaning, I bring it up as there is reputable research that seems to show that cougars show selectivity in prey selection. “Ambush’ seems to imply a passive waiting, as opposed to searching, stalking, and then launching an attack. Of course, the soon-to-be dinner being unaware, usually, would characterize the attack as an ambush.

    An interesting study is found here, showing that cats take prion-weakened deer at a higher rate than do hunters: http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/6/2/209.full

    Thank you for the interesting article. I greatly appreciate the work of Panthera, National Geographic, and other organizations that help us to better understand and to better protect that amazing family known as Felidae.

    • Mark Elbroch

      Thanks, Bob. Agreed– “stalk and pounce” seems very appropriate. And yes, a growing mountain of evidence now exists that suggests cougars are selecting prey rather than just hunting whatever they come across.

  • Andy

    Here is an article I found that talks about what Liz Bradley had mentioned.

    Mountain Lions Kill 2 Radio-Collared Wolves in Montana
    By Chad Love

    You know that “Animal Face-Off” Animal Planet show where scientists, engineers and animal experts use sophisticated forensic science to determine the winner of epic but purely hypothetical battles between various large and toothsome megafauna?
    Bear versus tiger, croc versus hippo and that kind of stuff. Well, it appears the mountain lions of Montana are rendering the question of “mountain lion versus wolf” completely moot.

    From this story on nbcmontana.com:

    A state wolf specialist in Montana says mountain lions have killed two radio-collared wolves in the Bitterroot Valley since January. Liz Bradley of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said she found a dead wolf last week with skull puncture wounds that are a trademark of a mountain lion.
    She said the lion ate part of the wolf and covered the rest with debris. In January she found another dead wolf west of Lolo with the same wounds. Bradley said a deer carcass nearby indicates the two predators apparently fought. She said last year she found two other wolves with puncture wounds in their skulls.

    So are you Team Kitty or Team Canine? One-on-one, it appears that a wolf is no match for a mountain lion. Makes sense. Just too much tooth, muscle, quickness and claw for a single wolf to handle, but I’m guessing when it’s a case of one-on-pack, it’s a different story. Any other match-ups you’d like to see?

  • Lisa LeBlanc

    While my personal knowledge of both wolves and mountain lions is admittedly from books and documentaries on the subjects, I’d like to point up a smaller, micro-environment I have observed. It’s anecdotal, but illustrative:
    I was raised in a small town in Nevada, largely agricultural. Farms employed both dogs for property protection and feral cats for rodent control. Upon occasion, dogs would ‘pack up’ and run the fields at night, killing or mauling small livestock indiscriminately. And feral cats would often become victims. However, the incident I observed was a young female cat, with her first litter, who had taken refuge in a five-gallon bucket in a ‘thicket’ of old tree branches. Her kitten’s cries had alerted a pack, and the pack – five normally decent dogs – began tearing apart the thicket to get to the kittens. The mother had apparently heard the dogs, and came running from wherever she’d been. Without hesitation, she barreled into the fray, a tiny tornado of teeth and claws, and while she killed none of the dogs, she left each of them bloodied, deeply scarred and better educated.
    Anyone who has had occasion to handle a domestic cat on the scrap knows precisely the strength and agility contained in an eight to fifteen pound body. Now imagine that physical prowess in a body 10 times the weight and height.
    I have had domestic cats as companions all my life, and can attest to their remarkable capabilities. Given their common roots, it’s not beyond the realm of reasonable possibility that a cat the size and weight of a mountain lion – which can kill an animal the size and strength of a wild horse – could hold it’s own against a pack of wolves or deliver a lethal blow to a lone wolf. Add the maternal imperative, and you have, arguably, a formidable combination.

  • ATMK

    It is true that wolves chase cougars from kills all the time and kill them far more than the other way around, but it is not ‘rare’ for a cougar to stalk and kill a wolf. I have heard of over 8 records of single wolves killed by cougars. Sure it’s not a very typical occurence as many studies showed that cougars failed to exhibit reciprocal behavior for even a few years in one area (only certain areas mind you, and a killing could have occurred without their knowledge.)
    But still, I would not call a cougar killing a wolf (especially a pup, like this one, cougars have killed many pups) ‘rare’.

    Jamey, cougars are hard to catch. That’s why almost only wolf packs and pairs can get to them because a healthy cougar could generally make it up a tree long before it could be caught if it felt threatened. It’s the teamwork that helps cut the cougar off and/or turn it before it gets away.

  • ATMK

    In the USA, cougars are generally bigger than wolves, so a single wolf noticeably smaller than a cougar could never win by itself

    • Mark Elbroch

      Greater Yellowstone wolves are quite heavy–averaging about 110 lbs, which is heavier than a typical female cougar (90-100 lbs) and much lighter than a typical male (150-160 lbs).

  • Cailey

    Well, Cougars can only run/sprint for a short period of time where as wolfs can run fast for long distances of time. Meaning its easily possible for wolves to catch cougars.

  • Grady Forbes

    Wolves, when in a pack, can rip a mountain lion in half. Because of this, dogs are greater predators than cats. 25 wolves vs 1 mountain lion, the mountain lion doesn’t have a chance.

  • Grady Forbes

    Even a grizzly bear wouldn’t be a match for 25 wolves. Wolves are the most dangerous animals on our continent.

  • Grady Forbes

    Packs of wolves have been known to kill young cougars and will do so to eliminate future rivalry. Wolves prey upon cougars.

  • Grady Forbes

    Although both wolves and cougars are quite successful land predators, if you match up a pack of wolves with A mountain lion, well, the cougar doesn’t have a chance. 1 on 1 though, cougar would rip wolf to pieces.

  • Grady

    1 on 1 cougar vs mother wolf, wolf would win.

  • Nameiz

    Mark Elbroch, if you see my comment, I wanted to ask you some questions.
    What are the sizes of wolf and cougar paw prints in comparison?
    And have you ever come across any instance of a single wolf killing a cougar kitten/subadult/adult?

  • Grady Forbes

    Nameiz a wolf could not kill a cougar even if it tried. wolves have the speed advantage but the cougars have the strength advantage. So, unless it was a mother wolf, the cougar would win. Against an entire pack however, the combined force of the pack would overpower the mountain lion.

  • stan

    It’s silly to think that one on one a wolf has a chance against a cougar. Seriously guys, cats have all the tools. It would have to be a much larger wolf on open terrain with nothing to climb or leap over so that the wolf could run it down and hope it doesn’t get the crap slapped out of it. Even if it cornered the cat, you know how scary a cornered cat can be lol. A mother cougar would probably kill a couple of them (but only if it had to). I’m sure it wouldn’t even come to that though, since cats are ambush predators and with one leap it would have it’s mouth around the wolves throat. Don’t you guys know how often dogs are killed by cougars. Of course large wolves can kill scrawny starving 60lb cougars but no way can they go toe to toe with the larger ones. I’m glad tehre are cougars around though to keep the wolves in check who in-turn keep the ungulates on the move.

  • Rentin Poley

    It seems to be a lot of cat fanciers on here. Lone wolves kill cougars too. You forget, wolves have more stamina and strength and jaw power than a puma. Most pumas are not 200 pounds. One cat can’t kill a whole pack. That is preposterous, talking about killing 25 wolves. Who ever thought that is a fool. If 2 250 pound Tibetan mastiffs use to kill a tiger, of course a wolf of the same size as a cougar with more jaw power can kill it. Wolves displace cougars, not the other way around. Most things depend on age, size, and region.

  • Mark

    I have raised wolves for 46 years, and have witnessed an adult wolf killing a adult cougar in a one on one fight.So, Yes a wolf can run down and will kill an adult cougar. However, Wolves would rather avoid conflicts with other apex predators.

  • Leif S

    There is now utube footage of Cougars killing full grown adult wolves, its not even a close fight…the cougar destroyed the wolf even when the wolf was bigger.

  • Leif S

    There is utube footage of cougars killing wolves, even when the wolf is bigger the cougar doesn’t have much trouble killing the wolf, its not fun to watch.

  • nicsoew

    Adult wolf has no chance one on one vs adult cougar. Wolves are pack animals and they fight in pack.

  • Mia

    Ok, to get this settled-
    A wolf has a tiny bit less than 4x the bite force of a cougar.
    Pretty self explanatory who would win.

  • Karen Guy

    Cougar babies are called cubs, not kittens. I am a a registered breeder of American Curl cats and am a cat enthusiast who studies both big and small cats. The term kitten would refer to baby cats and baby rabbits, that is all it would be. Thank you.

  • Jim Isbell

    An aspect of this, not discussed but reported elsewhere. It would seem the mountain lion is now forming GROUPS. Sort of like “OK, you are bringing you and ten buddies–Ok, I’ll bring ten of MY buddies”. Makes sense and maybe, NOT something new, but something very old. Remember the wolf had been removed and was not there for a long time. Maybe that led to the big cat hunting alone, and maybe just like the old days with lots of wolves, now–and back then, the cats are beginning to form groups as a survival tool. “Cats are solitary hunters” may be too thin–look at African Lions, are they “solitary hunters”?

  • Kings

    Cats are nature’s number one predator. Nuff said.

  • Robert

    Im not an expert or either moutain lions or wolves. However, it seems like most every comment is about there actually being a figjt between the two species. I would think that the following rules might apply before anf if there is a confrontation between the any species.
    1. The old fight or flight rule.
    2. If the cat determines there’s more than one wold; than I would assume that the cat would take flight if at all possible. Confrontation, even if the cat survived the battle could leave them with life threatening injuries; so unless there was absolutley no way, the cat would most likely stick his pride in her fur lined pocket and get the hell out of there!
    3. I agree that if the lion absolutely had no way out, then they would be, just like most any creature; a scary sob to deal with. I’m sure that even a 6 pack of wolves would find the big cat quite a handful; but in the end I’m sure the bloodied pack of wolves would win.
    4. As far as the number of wolf wins and cat wins is very small considering the total numbers of both species.
    5. So in the end, it’s really just all the previous commenters personal choices as to who is the toughest, strongest, biggest and most deadly predator.
    6. My choice being part American Indian and having the ability to shape shift into my personal favorite preditor.
    Thank you
    Robert Grey Running Wolf

  • Rod Checkalsk

    I am not an expert,but I think if a lone Wolf is aware of a Cougar in the area it knows to leave it alone. Cats & Wolves are Both Perfect Creations of GOD. Their hunting aspects are entirely different. If a lone Cougar knows of a Wolf pack,the Cat knows to keep clear. Point being,they respect each other. NOW,to me the BIG threat is US.

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