Overlapping Mountain Lions

F51 and her female offspring, F70, seated near an elk cow killed by F51. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera.

F61 and F51, adult female mountain lions (Puma concolor), also called cougars, followed by Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project were both four years old when they gave birth to their first litters of kittens within a month of each other in 2011. The pair of big cats were neighbors in adjacent and overlapping home ranges in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, east of Grand Teton National Park in northwest Wyoming, USA.

The Teton Range, photographed from the east across Grad Teton National Park. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera.
The Teton Range, photographed from the east across Grad Teton National Park. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera.

A well-placed motion-triggered camera caught a fortuitous image of F61 and F51 spending time together in early 2012, accompanied by their four kittens (1 from F61, 3 from F51). It sparked great discussion among our team, many of whom were convinced they must be close relatives, perhaps sisters. Indeed, prevailing theory supported the idea that close kin were more likely to be close to each other and tolerant of one other. Thus, it just made sense that the two cats would be kin. At the time, however, we did not know the genetic relatedness of cougars in our study, except of course, kittens born to females we were tracking.

Mountain lions are solitary carnivores expected to interact only during the breeding season or to settle territorial disputes. In short, we expect cougars to avoid each other. The two prevailing ecological theories explaining the spatial organization of animals within populations are the land-tenure and kinship theories (e.g., Diefenbach et al. 2006; Griffiths & Armstrong 2001). The land-tenure predicts territorial behaviors—females use smaller home ranges that provide the necessary resources to sustain themselves and their kittens, while males utilize larger home ranges that provide access to numerous females for mating opportunities. Kinship theory predicts that individuals that are more closely related to each other will be clumped together within populations. Spatial clumping might also lead to higher social tolerance between closely-related individuals.

Adult female mountain lion followed by Panthera's Teton Cougar Project. Photograph by Khalil Karimov / Panthera.
Adult female mountain lion followed by Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project. Photograph by Khalil Karimov / Panthera.

In early 2012, F51 and F61 were spotted together several more times and often near carcasses of animals we assume one or the other had killed. This led to more questions and more debate among our team. Perhaps prey distributions and availability were a contributing factor in cougar interactions? So, we did our best to devise a study to begin to unravel the social organization of pumas in our study area. Our goal was to test whether home range overlap between individuals was explained by the prevailing theories—land tenure or kinship—or perhaps, by the distributions of prey.

Assumptions of the land-tenure hypothesis, including that males have larger home ranges than females, and that males will not overlap with other males, could be tested with location data and subsequent home range calculations. Anthony Caragiulo joined our team from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to provide genetic analyses, so that we might assess kinship among cougars. That left prey distributions, which we needed at a fine enough scale to compare across home ranges and within home ranges as well. But we lacked these data, nor were they available from other researchers and wildlife managers in the region. After some creative thinking and lively discussions, we came up with the idea of “hunt opportunity”—an analysis that provided a mathematical value representing the probability that a cougar would kill prey in any given location across the landscape. Then we used hunt opportunity as a proxy for likely prey distributions.

Elk, deer, and other ungulates migrate seasonally in the Southern Yellowstone Ecosystem where we study cougars. In winter, our study area sees a massive influx of elk as they aggregate in groups of hundreds and thousands at lower elevations to avoid deep snows, and near supplemental feeding grounds maintained by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the National Elk Refuge. Thus we expected winter prey distributions rather than summer to better explain variation in home range overlap among individual cougars.

F51 and F61, as it ends up, were completely unrelated. F61 was born in the study area, whereas F51 immigrated in from elsewhere. The overlap between their home ranges supported higher winter hunting opportunities, as we expected given the large seasonal aggregations of prey in that season. And this pattern held true across other cougars in our study as well, as can be read in our new paper just published in the Journal of Animal Ecology. Kinship failed to explain variable home range overlap among cougars, whereas hunting opportunity and land tenure did. Our results provided an initial foundation from which to interpret our field observations of F61 and F51, and may indicate that solitary carnivores are more tolerant of sharing key resources with unrelated others than previously believed, or at least during periods of high resource availability.

Figure 1 from our paper in Journal of Animal Ecology, depicting the study area and home range overlap between several female and male cougars. Artwork by Patrick Lendrum and Mark Elbroch / Panthera.
Figure 1 from our paper in Journal of Animal Ecology, depicting the study area and home range overlap between several female and male cougars. Note that the animals depicted here are deceased, so as not to give away their territories (mountain lion hunting is legal in our study area). Artwork by Patrick Lendrum and Mark Elbroch / Panthera.

And this is just the start—we’ve launched new methods with motion-triggered cameras to better understand cougar interactions and to unravel when and why they come together. This research is forthcoming.

The full research article is available to download for free for one month from the journal itself—just click the Journal of Animal Ecology link, and then click “Get pdf” on the right and it will lead you to it. Alternatively, always feel free to request a copy through our facebook page: Continue to follow F51 and F61, and the adventures of other mountain lions as well, on our Panthera Puma Program facebook page. Thanks for reading.

 

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Diefenbach, D.R., Hansen, L.A., Warren, R.J. & Conroy, M.J. (2006) Spatial organization of a reintroduced population of bobcats. Journal of Mammalogy, 87, 394–401.

Elbroch, L. M., Lendrum, P., Quigley, H. & Caragiulo, A. (2015) Spatial overlap in a solitary carnivore: support for the land-tenure, kinship, or resource dispersion hypotheses? Journal of Animal Ecology doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.12447

Griffiths, S. W. & Armstrong, J. D. (2001) The benefits of genetic diversity outweigh those of kin association in a territorial animal. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, 268, 1293-1296.

Changing Planet

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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.