Of Mountain Lions And Dangerous Prey

P90, a subadult female mountain lion the day after she killed a porcupine. (We removed the quills while she was anesthetized and she was just fine.) Photograph by Anna Kusler / Panthera / Pace U.

I found the fresh footprints of a subadult male mountain lion not one mile from the typically bustling headquarters of the High Lonesome Ranch in western Colorado, USA. But it was early and the ranch had yet to wake. I sat on the track in the pitch black, awaiting sunrise and the arrival of local houndsmen, Grant and Cody. My radio crackled soon enough, and I told them where I was. Once they arrived in the field, we quickly released hounds trained in the art of catching mountain lions, and sooner than any of us expected, we caught a young male we called P3. He weighed 46 kg (102 lbs), and was approximately 18-20 months of age. He hadn’t left his mother all that long ago.

P3 remained in our study area only a day; he was likely dispersing in search of his own territory when we caught him. He moved east, and north, paralleling Interstate 70. We followed, conducting field investigations in search of prey remains in every location where he spent four or more hours. While he traveled, just 8% of his diet was adult elk or deer, which made sense given that large, adult ungulates could be dangerous. Mountain lions are occasionally killed when pierced or crushed by antlers or horns, or when thrown by large prey and subsequently slammed into trees. Instead of deer and elk, an amazing 28% of P3’s diet was North American porcupines. Porcupines differ from other mammals in North and South America, in that they wear weapons to deter potential predators. Porcupines are covered by approximately 30,000 quills—sharp, rigid, hollow hairs 2–10 cm long, and each tipped with 700-800 barbs.

A North American porcupine waddling along. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera
A North American porcupine waddling along. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera

In contrast, when P3 established a home range four months later and 65 miles northeast of where we captured him, 32% of his diet was adult deer and elk, and his intake of porcupines dropped to just 12%. In fact, after several months in his new territory, he stopped eating porcupines all together. P3’s pattern of foraging was repeated several times as we followed dispersing mountain lions in the Rocky Mountains, USA and thus, a question was born. Could we predict when and why mountain lions choose dangerous prey?

Ecologists have in fact already made predictions about such things. Large carnivores should kill prey larger than themselves—because then they save energy by hunting less often. Nevertheless, Hayward et al. (2007) found that young African lions hunted small prey while they learned the requisite skills to take down larger, more dangerous prey. Following this research, Jen Feltner, Howard Quigley and I formed our first prediction in a new paper just published by the Journal of Zoology: young mountain lions would avoid adult deer and elk, because of the dangers they posed to inexperienced hunters.

Neal Wight collects data on a porcupine killed by a dispersing male mountain lion in western Colorado. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera
Neal Wight collects data on a porcupine killed by a dispersing male mountain lion in western Colorado. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera

Somewhat in contrast to what was documented in African lions, ecologists also predict that juvenile predators, individuals of lower social rank, and hungry, less-experienced individuals are more likely to take additional risks and engage dangerous prey (Mukherjee & Heithaus, 2013). Thus, our second prediction was that young, inexperienced, dispersing mountain lions unfamiliar with the terrain through which they passed would be more likely to engage porcupines, a small, easy to handle prey, but one made dangerous by the quills they wear (see Mountain Lions Versus Porcupines).

When we stepped back to assess a sample of mountain lions, the pattern was very clear—each of the ecologists before us were right. Though young, dispersing mountain lions avoided dangerous adult elk and deer and disproportionately hunted smaller game, they also disproportionately killed small but dangerous porcupines. We believe this stage-dependent foraging pattern (young, dispersing animals versus resident adult mountain lions) is important in describing the ecology of mountain lions, as well as in identifying potential dispersal habitat that could see mountain lion expansion in areas of North and South America where they were previously eradicated.

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Hayward, M.W., Hofmeyr, M., O’Brien, J. & Kerley, G.I.H. (2007). Testing predictions of the prey of the lion (Panthera leo) derived from modelled prey preferences. J.Wildl. Manage. 71, 1567–1575.

Mukherjee, S. & Heithaus, M.R. (2013) Dangerous prey and daring predators: a review. Biol. Rev. 88, 550–563.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Mark Elbroch is Director of the Puma Program for Panthera, a US-based non-profit that conducts science and conservation action to promote wild cat conservation worldwide. He has contributed to puma research in Idaho, Colorado, California, Wyoming, Mexico, Washington and Chile. 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.