Stinky dead meat. Oddly, I’ve come to love the stench of it, even though it sometimes turns my stomach. It’s become a badge of honor and a symbol of what I do, hiking long days in search of prey killed by mountain lions.
Sometimes the stink helps me locate the carcass, or the sounds of flies hovering over the carcass when I’m close. If I’m really lucky, birds take flight or mammals run, giving away the location of a carcass stashed away by a mountain lion. Because it turns out that I’m not the only one looking for mountain lion kills.
We just published our latest research in the international science journal Biological Conservation, and it highlights the incredible diversity of wildlife that feed upon mountain lion kills. In fact, the number of animal species that we recorded feeding at mountain lion kills in Wyoming was higher than any other scavenger study to date from around the world. This means mountain lions are especially important to ecosystems.
In recent years, there has been an abundance of research celebrating the importance of carrion (dead meat) in promoting ecosystem health and local biodiversity. If you think of food webs as a simplification of a forest ecosystem, you can quickly assess the forest’s health and resilience (its ability to bounce back after a disaster, such as a disease outbreak), by counting the number of linkages in the food web.
We know, for example, that mountain lions are linked to elk and deer because they eat them. What’s exciting is that deer and elk killed by mountain lions also become linked to black-capped chickadees, red squirrels, and numerous other species that feed upon their carcasses. Carrion, in short, increases the number of linkages in food webs considerably.
Unfortunately, large carnivores that create large carcasses are in sharp decline around the world. And not all carnivores are the same, either. Cheetahs and mountain lions provide more carrion to their ecological communities than other apex predators. Mountain lions, for example, abandon nearly 16 pounds of meat a day for every 40 square miles of their 8.8-million-square-mile range, contributing roughly 3.3 million pounds (1.5 million kilograms) of meat to other animals across North and South America—that’s half a million pounds more than the beef sold by McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S. each day! That’s a lot of meat.
Building upon this knowledge, we set out to learn what animals were taking advantage of mountain lion kills and their free buffets to determine how many food web “linkages” (number of different animals) were supported by mountain lions in northwest Wyoming. We set motion-triggered video cameras at 242 active mountain lion kills monitored as part of Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project, and recorded an impressive 39 species of birds and mammals (plus domestic dogs, but we didn’t count them) feeding upon carcasses, some of them even while the mountain lion was sleeping nearby. Red foxes and black-billed magpies were by far the most common scavengers, but we also glimpsed weasels, flying squirrels, chickadees, gray jays and deer mice dining as well. In fact, 15% of all local birds and mammals in the Grand Teton National Park area fed at mountain lion kills we monitored!
VIDEO: A short selection of large scavengers documented at mountain lion kills in northwest Wyoming. Videos by Mark Elbroch.
This is just one reason mountain lions are so vital to healthy ecosystems. They provide carrion that in turn is spread across their communities by an unbelievable number of birds and mammal scavengers. In fact, mountain lions are the most widely distributed terrestrial mammal in the western hemisphere. Our new research shows that just like McDonald’s, mountain lions provide fast food to the masses across their vast range in North and South America.
We’ve also been studying the number of beetles that feed at mountain lion kills—and that number is even more unbelievable! Stay tuned…
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