Welcome to my personal puma path, part 1 of 2!
My first living mountain lion I saw was the Florida panther walking on a road in the appropriately named Spirit of the Wild Wildlife Management at 2:00pm near LaBelle, Florida in 2017. My desire to see and eventually photograph mountain lions was a lifelong goal as I heard about “painters” as a child where I grew up in the North Carolina mountains. But I didn’t successfully photograph them until one year ago, this month.
An eco-tourism sheep ranch adjacent to the well-known Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile provided a protected area for pumas to thrive and actually become habituated to eco-tourists, photographers, and documentarians from BBC, CNN, Nat Geo, and others. Strict rules were enforced not to interfere with the cats’ natural behavior. Certified puma trackers were the link to locate the pumas to keep them safe, not be harassed, and to ensure visitors obeyed the rules. With their help and a photography leader, I photographed 12 pumas in five days, a physically demanding trip hiking 2-4 miles, carrying heavy camera gear, and climbing up and down so- called hills! Up at four AM, hopefully returned for lunch at noon at the hotel, out again at 4:30 pm and then returned hopefully by 10 pm for dinner. Meals were usually 1.5-2 hrs. Not a lot of sleep on this trip!
Now for the nitty gritty about the kitty:
In 28 countries of the Americas, supposedly the mountain lion bears more than 100 common names than any other animal including puma, panther or “painter,” catamount, and cougar. Puma is commonly used in Central and South America.
Not only does this cat have many names, many opinions exist about its life history especially where and when the cat comes in conflict with humans and from documentaries, YouTube, tv news, and other social media.
If asked about a cougar, people can answer that it is nocturnal, solitary except when mating or with cubs, a livestock killer, a jogger stalker, a natural born killer, a fierce, aggressive cat, and more.
But when this species lives in a protected area and where pumas are habituated to people along with reviews of many studies, some of those ideas and research need to be updated.
Let’s review research from North and South America along with observations from puma trackers, especially those in Patagonia, Chile.
Initiallyscientific studies of mountain lions in the United States and Canada were based on morphology. Size, shape, measurements of different structures, location, and even hair color influenced defining many subspecies throughout the states.
However, recent genetic analyses reveal one subspecies ranges from north of Panama to SE Alaska while the other from Panama south to the tip of South America. Meanwhile many people will excuse the Florida panther as a separate subspecies. Just note that some of its characteristics are based on genetic mutations from inbreeding such as deformed faces, low sperm count, kinked tails, and deformed sperm. But amazingly, once, I even found a “Carolina” Panther, complete with the dab!
NOT A BIG CAT?
Another classification includes the lion, jaguar, tiger, and leopard as “big cats” or pantherines vs small cats or felines. Big cats can roar, but not purr. On the other hand, er, mouth, the cheetah and cougar can purr but not roar and are in the small cat sub-family. Each have a special u-shaped hyoid bone apparatus which gives structure for the tongue, larynx, and part of the throat. The differences seem to be purring cats have a rigid hyoid bone while non-purring cats have a more flexible one. Vocal folds/cords also vary in shape. Roaring cats have flat, square shaped vocal folds that can tolerate stretching and shearing while purring cats’ vocal cords form a circle.
Yes, mountain lions are active at night and that trait may have added to tall tales and the mystery of its natural history. But they are also active at dawn and dusk or any time of day. In areas where the pumas aren’t hunted or poached, they appear to be more active during the day. At the sheep ranch, the puma trekkers shared that adult male pumas slept during the day and were more active at night to feed on carcasses killed by the females. They said I wouldn’t see any adult males during daytime hours unless a female was in heat.
SOLITARY? In protected areas scientists now understand the cats are more social than once believed. Scientists first believed the cats were related but were astounded to learn otherwise due to genetic testing or observation of family generations. As many as 10 females have been observed sharing prey. Even I twice observed six different pumas that shared two kills with other females and their cubs.
Each puma and its offspring appeared to wait patiently from a distance until the feeding cat(s) left the immediate area. This spatial separation reduced injury by any adult female from fighting to maintain control of the carcass. In another instance an injured mother with two one year cubs were invited by two different females calling that family to share two different carcasses.
Generally, cubs leave their moms at 15 months-two years. However, I saw two two year old sisters still hunting together. Also an adult male has been seen living with two adult females.
Absolutely. Of course pumas will kill weak and injured prey but they also kill healthy animals. They are opportunistic and go after easiest prey especially in human encroached areas.
Media coverage of human interaction with pumas is abundant. Typically humans aren’t prey. Besides human encroachment in their habitat, young cougars separate from their mothers at 15 months to two years of age. Female offspring settle smaller territories close to their mother while young males have to retreat farther away to find their territories and may end up near humans. During this time a movement from any animal, even a human, can spark an attack, stalking, or ambush, especially if the cat hasn’t learned how to hunt well or is hungry. Movement spurs the interest to chase. So don’t run.
A FIERCE, AGGRESSIVE NATURAL BORN KILLER?
Cubs have to learn how to hunt, how to kill, and how to survive. Researchers who’ve worked with bobcats and cougars stress they would rather be cornered with a cougar than a bobcat. They deem the bobcat as the aggressive and fierce cat, not the timid mountain lion.
This picture looks aggressive and scary but actually it is a flehmen response. With a curled upper lip, the puma inhales to bring pheromones and other chemical signals into the roof of the mouth. A small duct transmits those chemicals into a scent detecting organ called Jacobson’s organ. This flehmen response is used to test for readiness to mate, the specific location of the animal, its prey, other competitors, and other cats. Scientists believe that action increases the scent by thirty times.
This link illustrates a sub-adult that found a young animal and didn’t know exactly what to do.
INTERACTIONS WITH OTHER SPECIES:
In the 2022 remarkable review of 162 scientific studies, scientists summarized the cougar interacted 543 times with 485 different species. The study excluded many species involved with decomposition and other factors along with lack of published studies in Latin America which could possibly double the interactions. In this color coded chart, each dot represents an interaction with another species in six categories. The link to this study is cited in the references.
How often would a predator use plants in their lives other than perhaps eating it? Certain predators, especially wild cats, cache prey after they catch prey by covering the carcass from scavengers or hiding in dense vegetation or like a leopard, hiding it up a tree.
Below is a brief example of a puma interaction with four specific plant species to cache prey that you would never think about until now. Primarily pumas in the sheep ranch where I photographed used coiron, mate barrossa, mate negra, and calafate. Coiron, a straw colored grass, mata barrosa, a low green shrub, mata negra orblack bush, a taller dark shrub and the thorn bush, calafate, areeasier to break down and use by the puma.
Let’s carry-on from coiron to learn more about the puma’s intriguing life in part 2.
DISCLAIMER: As usual, references don’t agree especially with predator studies.
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@example.com All rights reserved, ©Cherie Pittillo