by Yucatan Times

Imagine when three puma trekkers witnessed something they had never seen in each of their seven years experience among pumas in Patagonia, Chile not counting their prior multiple years with jaguars and pumas in the Pantanal,Brazil. Luckily our group of five photographers plus our photography master were able to witness an unexperienced young female puma encounter a living, young guanaco or chulengo. (Guanacos are the wild origin of the domesticated llama.)

Although the puma appears to growl or snarl in the first three images, this facial behavior is part of the flehmen response. It is not an aggressive posture. Until I saw this behavior, I always linked “flehmen” to a male mammal such as a lion or horse or with my experience to cattle, a bull. This process involves inhaling pheromones from a female to indicate her readiness to mate whether the scent is in the air or from urine or other sources. In this case, the cat opened its mouth to bring in air carrying those pheromones into the Jacobson’s organ via a duct located in the roof of the mouth. (Humans don’t have that specific organ.) It did this several times. That action amplifies the sensitivity to scent. But I also learned that not only does this response help with courtship, but it can help with defining prey or location or others of the same species.

Cat continues flehmen response.
Puma charges while still inhaling pheromones from nearby prey

Our puma leader remarked how the cat’s reaction to its own adrenaline was so pronounced that she was unsure of what to do. She charged the chulengo several times and also patted it with her paws to make it move, which it didn’t for awhile. Or the cat jumped around it. Then the puma would run away and take more deep breaths. Other times she would lie close.

Puma backs off charge
The puma lies downs looking at prey
The cat is unsure of what to do.
A young guanaco or chulengo watches as the puma runs around it.
After several attempts the cat pats the guanaco
Another effort to move the guanaco

Eventually, the chulengo stood up, ran, and then rested, and the cat did the same. One time they actually collided but both stopped and rested again. Finally the cat gave chase as they both ran out of sight with the chulengo ahead. We didn’t pursue them.

Chulengo begins to rise
Puma intently watches
Chulengo jumps up as puma crouches
Another unsure pat from the puma
The chase begins
After the collision, both rested and then the chase resumed
Chulengo gains momentum
The last chase image because they disappeared from view

Those of you with pet cats know this game of  “cat and mouse.” But a puma gradually learns the skills of how to hunt its prey and survive through this “game.” Just know that adult pumas typically would not spend their time nor energy “playing with their food,” as their success rate of killing their prey, such as a 250 pound adult guanaco, may be one in ten.

Now I imagine some of you were hoping throughout this story that the young guanaco escaped. As humans, we seem  wired to protect babies/young especially if we, or even The Walt Disney Company, have deemed them “cute.” Remember Bambi and Thumper? Often the carnivore is depicted as the villain in tv, social media, and even cartoons or other animation. Maybe we want the predator killed or harmed or eradicated from the area, especially when it attacks a young animal.

Here’s the question: should the predator die because it hasn’t learned to catch its cute prey? Isn’t it also a young, pretty animal that needs food?  What if it isn’t pretty or maybe considered ugly? Many puma cubs don’t survive their first year. Just a question to ponder because more amazing research about the lives of pumas and guanacos as well as other wildlife of Patagonia, Chile will be revealed in future columns.


DISCLAIMER: References do not agree. Plus I may not have found the latest research in my efforts.

En El Limite/On the Edge Puma Torres del Paine by Nicolás Lagos Silva;  A Wildlife Guide to Chile


Cherie Pittillo, “nature inspired,” photographer and author, explores nature everywhere she goes. She’s identified 56 bird species in her Merida, Yucatan backyard view. Her monthly column features anecdotes about birding in Merida, Yucatan and also wildlife beyond the Yucatan.

Contact: [email protected]  All rights reserved, ©Cherie Pittillo

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bruce krucke February 7, 2023 - 10:08 am

How exciting! Beautiful photographs of all the puma’s facial expressions. She would have been so embarrassed had she known her curiosity and experimenting were being recorded. I hope she was able to catch her meal after all. Thanks for showing us this extremely interesting behavior.

Cherie Pittillo February 8, 2023 - 3:29 pm

Bruce Krucke, that sequence illustrates how these young animals learn how to kill their prey. And with adrenaline pumping through her, she really didn’t know what to do. However, once movement occurs, that seems to trigger the fight response. That’s why when our small group of photographers had pumas walking towards us and then close to us, we froze. No movement from us. However, if the cat appeared interested in attacking, then we would have held our position, raised our arms to look larger, and yelled. We had several close encounters and were never threatened.

Barbara MacKinnon February 7, 2023 - 6:32 pm

Fantastic, Cherie. For me, animal behavior is more fascinating than anything else you can learn about a species. Thanks for sharing.

Cherie Pittillo February 8, 2023 - 3:33 pm

Barbara MacKinnon, we have that belief about animal behavior in common. Because these pumas are habituated to humans, we appear to be ignored, The cats certainly know we are there but appear to continue their normal behavior in front of us. I firmly believe all the puma trekkers could enrich and flesh out the life history of the puma if their information was recorded and shared with all of us. Of course these cats are protected on this estancia and another nearby and the Torres de Paine Nat’l Park. Other sheep farmers kill the cats even though they have been protected since 1980.


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