I am talking to both you and that cougar 😉
I hope you are enjoying life, while remembering to give yourself as much unconditional love as your furry, finned, scaled, and feathered companion give to you. In my last post I went waaaaay up into the heart, so today I am going to switch gears and talk about three things I freaking love: Big Cats, Wildlife Ecology, and Sleep!
The other day I was taking a break from writing our book trilogy by tweetering around on twitter (another one of my best displacement behaviors). 😉 While I was out there I came across a very cool post from Panthera, so I was inspired to learn more. I’ve been following their great work ever since a dear friend became their director a few years ago, but this particular project really got my attention. It was not only about who cougars are choosing to cuddle with, but where and why.
If you are not yet aware, Panthera is not only the name of the genus within the Felidae family; Panthera is also the only organization in the world that is devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species and their landscapes! Seriously. How amazing is that!? You will be stunned at the incredible conservation work they are doing around the globe, so be sure to check them out! Below is their mission statement.
Panthera’s mission is to ensure the future of wild cats through scientific leadership and global conservation action. We have brought together the world’s leading wild cat experts to direct and implement effective conservation strategies for the world’s largest and most endangered cats: tigers, lions, jaguars and snow leopards. Our approach to wild cat conservation is rooted in science and based upon decades of first hand field experience. We seek a future in which the world’s 37 wild cat species have the necessary and ongoing protection from human and environmental threats to persist and thrive in the wild. Our vision sees endangered wild cat populations rebounded, critical habitats and core populations connected by genetic and biological corridors, and a global commitment to protect these iconic species through near and distant futures.
Ever since I began working around and managing captive groups of exotic cats back in the day, I have been head over heels in love with every species of wild feline. They never cease to teach me something new and incredible. And since I happen to adore house cats and appreciate the powerful genetic link, I thought this would be a fun post to share!
Now, if you are not familiar with the word Felidae, I can explain. Think of your family. You may not be close, but you are of the same lineage. Felidae is a lineage of carnivorans colloquially referred to as “cats.” Members of this family are called “felids.” So the term “cat” refers both to felids in general and domestic cats. Your house cat belongs to the Felidae family, just like Garth, the African lion, pictured above! Pretty cool, huh?
Felids are separated into two distinct subgroups: large cats and small cats. Some of these small cats, due to a hardening of the hyoid bone, have an inability to roar. But many of them purr (as you might have read about before). Felidae consists of 2 subfamilies: Pantherinae and Felinae. We humans don’t have subfamilies, (although I am sure some people view their younger, annoying siblings this way 😉 There are a number of genus within the Felidae family. Some feline biologists only acknowledge a few genera of felids, but most agree there are 18 genera (genus) and 36 species of Felidae.
Note: A “genus” is a rank in the biological classification/taxonomy. It stands above species, and below families. A genus can include more than one species. When biologists talk about a genus, they mean one or more species of animals or plants that are closely related to each other. Below is an easy rundown of the classification of the cougar which includes genus and family.
Beyond Cool Cats
But as cool as these wild cats are, it’s important to note that if we want to understand how to provide proper conditions for house cats, we need to look at the species as a whole. And if we want to support conservation efforts, it helps to understand and appreciate the species as a whole. This post serves to do just that. So grab your coffee, tea, water, or wine, and get comfy with your cuddle-bug! We are going to take a peek at one of the house cat’s kin: The Cougar!
The puma (Puma concolor) is also commonly known as the mountain lion, cougar, panther, or catamount. This species is the most widely distributed free-ranging land mammal in the Americas. They are currently found from Northern Canada to the Southern Andes. At the time of European contact, this species occurred through most of North, Central, and South America. Today, the cougar has the greatest natural distribution of any mammal in the Western Hemisphere except for man.
The cougar is the largest cat in the genus Felis. The cougar is comparable in size to the leopard. Length varies from 59 – 108 inches with a tail length of 21 – 36 inches (I am squealing as I am thinking of such a delightful tail!). Their height ranges from 23 – 28 inches at the shoulder. Weight can vary greatly: between 75 and 250 pounds.
Felis Concolor at a Glance:
Habitat: The cougar thrives in montane, coniferous forests, lowland tropical forests, swamps, grassland, dry brush country, or any other area with adequate cover and prey.
Distribution: Western North America from British Columbia and south Alberta south through west Wyoming to California and west Texas. Also south Texas, Louisiana, south Alabama, Tennessee, and peninsular Florida.
Common Names: Cougar, Puma, Panther, Mountain Lion, Catamount
Genus: Felidae (Puma)
- Eastern Texas to Florida – P.c.coryi –IUCN: Endangered, CITES:Appendix I
- Northeastern US and southeastern Canada Cougar – P.c. couguar – IUCN: Endangered, CITES: Appendix I
- Central American Cougar – P.c. costaricensis – CITES: Appendix I
Misc: The International Species Information Service lists the current estimated number at 334 in zoos worldwide, with 119 located in the U.S.
Common Ancestry of Cats
One of the major lessons I learned from working with wild cats during the day and then coming home at night to my house cats was life changing for us all: I realized was living alongside tiny tigers, wee wildcats, and house panthers. My feral cat was amazingly similar to the African wildcat. My playful black cat was not that different from the Black Panther. My sweet orange tabby was much like a tiny tiger. My grey cat was incredibly similar to the fearless cougar.
Everything from how they hunted, where they preferred to sleep, how they groomed, how they interacted with their species, other species, their prey, and even people were eerily similar. My house cats’ bodies, needs, behavior, choices, and personalities were not worlds away from these wild cats; they were living parallel lives in many ways.
It turns out, feline science shows they are more alike that most people realize. In fact, results of mitochondrial analysis indicates that all Felidae descended from a common ancestor. And genetic evidence indicates that our modern day house cats are descendants from at least five feline founders of a group of Wildcats from 9,000 – 10,000 years ago! Cats are considered only a semi-domesticated species, because many populations are not isolated from wildcats.
“We don’t think house cats are truly domesticated. We refer to them as “semi-domesticated. They only recently split off from wild cats, and some even still breed with their wild relatives. We believe we have created the first preliminary evidence that depicts domestic cats as not that far removed from wildcat populations.” – Wes Warren, professor of genomics at the Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis
What You Don’t Know
Now before you get all judgey about exotic cats being kept in captivity, there are facts that most folks don’t know about these felines. Many are captive born. Many are rescued. Some are confiscations from the illegal animal trade, (just like this tiger recently confiscated here in California) and they are now living in zoos. Some are clones! Some are on loan from other zoos for very specific breeding purposes to preserve their species.
Some were pets, like Chloe pictured below. She was horribly mutilated through a declawing procedure. She was unable to walk, stand upright, or put any pressure on her paw pads after the horrible procedure of declawing. Thankfully, she gained a new life at Audubon after my dear friend and talented veterinarian went to great lengths to reattach her tendons. Now she is thriving.
Animal care facilities, such as zoos are not out there capturing wild cats and bringing them into captivity. Most are assisting, breeding, and caring for these cats. They are being cared for in the best way possible in captive conditions. There is more going on behind the scenes at zoos than most people realize. 100% of these efforts (at AZA accredited zoos) are dedication towards education and conservation.
Then and Now
Back in the day, we were managing big cat species with the most recent data and research available. Today, nearly twenty years later, we have learned so much more! Thanks to advances in technology we are dispelling myths, finding new facts, and using field data to better understand these covert creatures (including what happens when a Male Puma Visits a Female & Her Kitten at their recent Kill)! 😮
These tremendous advances in conservation efforts, both in and out of zoos, are contributing to the success of these species in the wild. Much of these advances are due to the technology that’s now available to capture these elusive cats on camera.
When I look back to when I was a kid in the 70’s and remember that my go-to handheld device was the Etch A Sketch , I have to laugh. Now look at what we have available in 2018! It’s amazing. As technology has improved, not only have we enabled our society to stay more connected virtually, but our ability to study mysterious and obscure animal behavior has increased.
So this brings us to our focus today: Covert Cougars & Puma’s Preferred Beds!
Strange Feline Bed Fellows
Would it surprise you to learn that house cats choose to sleep in strange places for similar reasons that big cats in the wild choose to sleep in strange places? If you think about how closely related house cats are to their wild kin, it makes purrrfect sense!
Ever wonder why your cat wants to hide in a box, or why she chooses to snooze with a cuddle buddy? Thanks to folks who are studying wild felines in the field, we know why. It turns out, there is safety in numbers even with more solitary species, and bed selection sites are not random. Where wild cats and house cats choose to snooze is based on very particular preferences and the need to stay safe and survive! And pumas, like our house cats, are more social than previously thought!
An Extinct Subspecies
As much as I am excited about this post, I am deeply saddened. Before we go on, there is some sad news to report. Effective January, 22, 2018, the eastern puma (Felis concolor couguar) is extinct. My heart sank when I learned this. Eight decades after the last confirmed sighting, wildlife biologists have concluded that the eastern puma is no more.
To help you better understand how this came to be, it’s helpful to know this subspecies’ (known) history. This now extinct cat is a subspecies of puma. The eastern puma (cougar) was originally listed as an endangered species on June 4, 1973. Historical literature indicates puma populations were mostly in Eastern North America (except for Florida and perhaps the Smoky Mountains) by the 1870s, and in the Midwest by 1900. Puma records from New Brunswick in 1932 and Maine in 1938 suggest that a population may have persisted in northernmost New England and eastern Canada. By 1900 they had all but vanished due to systematic hunting and trapping. The last one on record was killed by a hunter in Maine in 1938.
Although habitat conditions now appear to be suitable for puma presence in various portions of the historical range described for the eastern puma, the many decades of both habitat and prey losses belie the sustained survival and reproduction of this subspecies over that time.
Their disappearance was attributed primarily to persecution stemming from fear of large predators, competition with game species, and occasional depredation of livestock. Other causes of eastern puma losses during the late 1800s included declining habitat. The most recent confirmed eastern puma sightings date from the mid-1800s to around 1930. Confirmed reports of pumas in Eastern North America (outside Florida) since then have been shown to be either western puma dispersers, as in Missouri, or released or escaped animals, as in Newfoundland.
The agency opened an extensive review in 2011 into the status of the eastern cougar, a genetic cousin of the mountain lions that still inhabit much of the Western United States and of a small, imperiled population of Florida panthers found only in the Everglades. In 2015, federal wildlife biologists concluded that pumas elsewhere in the Eastern United States were beyond recovery. States now have juridiction to determine the best way to reintroduce the other subspecies of cougars into society.
The puma was documented historically in a variety of eastern habitats from the Everglades in the Southeast to temperate forests in the Northeast. Aside from presence reports, few historical records exist regarding the natural history of the eastern puma subspecies. Thankfully, in North America, breeding populations of the Puma species still occupy approximately one-third of their historical range but are now absent from eastern regions outside of Florida.
Below are quotes from the Fish and Wildlife Service explaining their ruling.
We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), determine the eastern puma (=cougar) (Puma (=Felis) concolor couguar) to be extinct, based on the best available scientific and commercial information. This information shows no evidence of the existence of either an extant reproducing population or any individuals of the eastern puma subspecies; it also is highly unlikely that an eastern puma population could remain undetected since the last confirmed sighting in 1938. Therefore, under the authority of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (Act), as amended, we remove this subspecies from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.
Our decision to remove the eastern puma from the List due to extinction is based on information and analysis showing that the eastern puma likely has been extinct for many decades, long before its listing under the Act. Eastern puma sightings have not been confirmed since the 1930s, and genetic and forensic testing has confirmed that recent validated puma sightings in the East, outside Florida, were animals released or escaped from captivity, or wild pumas dispersing eastward from western North America.
Monitoring Covert Cougars
Like other cryptic, covert carnivores with large territories, puma populations are notoriously difficult to study. These large Felids are typically solitary, elusive, and nocturnal, making spotting them very challenging. But it’s a necessity. Being able to gather reliable data on large Felid populations is crucial for effective conservation and management of this species. Tagging and following cougars with GPS technology is the standard approach, but these methods are expensive and can compromise the animal’s welfare. So scientists are also using indirect signs for monitoring this covert creature.
Indirect signs are footprints, scat, nests. Often these can be the most effective and least expensive way to detect many animals. Animal footprints are much more frequently encountered in the field than the animals themselves, and have served as the basis for population indices and estimators. Footprint surveys are also non-invasive; the animal need not be seen, captured, or handled.
Researchers are using at least three non-invasive methods to study puma populations:
- camera traps (used to identify individual animals by analysis of spots and stripes
- genetic analysis of hair and scat (puma poop!)
- footprint surveys
But they have learned that camera traps may underestimate accurate numbers because pumas lack distinguishing marks. The genetic analysis is accurate, but apparently finding puma poop isn’t that easy. But, thanks to scat detection dogs, biologists are now locating more scat!
Another non-invasive method being used to track these covert cougars is identifying puma prints! This can be done through tracking three signs a puma has left behind after being in an area: a Trail, Footprint, or Track
- Trail = an unbroken series of footprints made by one animal
- Footprint = a single impression made by a foot
- Track = commonly used to describe both an individual footprint and a trail
Below is a perfect photo of a puma footprint and a puma footprint showing the placement of 25 landmark points (red circles) and 15 points derived from them and generated by the FIT script (yellow circles). These provide 40 points to enable the scientists to measure each puma’s footprint precisely.
Recent Science Reveals Secrets
A relatively recent study that was part of Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project (TCP), which had already shed invaluable light on other puzzling puma behaviors, enabled conservationists to learn more about this secretive species – everything from their ecological effects to their secret social lives. The study published on Nov 14, 2017 showed the results of research conducted on cougars in Yellowstone. Their goal was to determine whether a subordinate carnivore (cougar) chose bedding areas with similar characteristics in an ecosystem that supports a multi-species guild of competing predators. Basically, they wanted to learn about bed site selection among Pumas!
The video below shows curious cougars (a mother and her kittens) investigating a camera trap in the Teton mountains. In this region, Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project has discovered a great deal about the behavior and ecology of this misunderstood and charismatic cat.
I should note: In the world of Ecology, a guild is a group of species that have similar requirements and play a similar role within a community. They exploit the same kinds of resources in comparable ways. Members of a guild within a given ecosystem could be competing for resources (space, shade, or light), while also cooperating in resisting wind stresses, attracting pollinators, or detecting predators. One example of this kind of guild is the Savannah-dwelling antelope and zebra.
The name “guild” emphasizes the fact that these groups are like associations of craftsmen who employ similar techniques in plying their trade. They often are composed of groups of closely related species that all arose from a common ancestor, and they exploit resources in similar ways as a result of their shared ancestry. Several species within a single genus may constitute a guild within a community.
Other examples of guilds in nature are different insect species that collect nectar in similar ways, various bird species that employ corresponding insect-foraging techniques, or diverse plant species that have evolved comparable floral shapes with which they attract the same group of pollinators.
Guilds in Nature:
- Browsers and terrestrial folivores
- Forest canopy folivores
- Forest floor scavengers
- Forbs ( or “phorb” – an herbaceous flowering plant that is not a graminoid)
- Graminoids (grasses, rushes and sedges)
- Saprophytes (plant, fungus, or microorganism that lives on decaying organic matter)
- Piscivores (carnivorous animal that eats primarily fish)
Because members of a guild engage in similar activities, they are often competitors for the resources they share, especially when those resources are scarce. So, when it comes to safe bedding sites, and sharing resources in a guild, researches wanted to know more about cougars! Between 2012-2016 the researchers investigated nearly 600 cougar bed sites in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. They carefully examined both the landscape and the microsite. These TCP researchers used GPS collars to identify the puma bedding sites, then carefully studied each one.
If we are going to learn why and what they are studying exactly, we need to cover the terms. A “microsite” is a term used in ecology to describe a pocket within an environment with unique features or conditions. Ecologists and scientists classifying different microsites based on temperature, humidity, sunlight, nutrient availability, soil characteristics, substrate, vegetation cover, etc. A microsite is basically a sub environment within an environment.
It’s important to also note that many microsites exist in an environment. This leads to organisms (plants, insects, animals) basing their selection of habit on the features of the microsite itself. Being able to choose the best microsite will positively influence the species’ survival, growth and reproduction. Basically, a good choice of a microsite has a direct relationship to the future generation of that particular species.
Their research discovered that among prey species, bed site selection provides:
- thermoregulatory benefits
- mitigates predation risk
- may directly influence survival
They discovered that pumas gravitate to hidden bed sites where it would be hard for a competitor to see them. Warmth is also an important factor in bed-site selection, especially during winter. Their studies also shed light on the fact that these felines face more danger in their natural habitats than most of us realize.
1. Landscape Choices
Research concerning the landscape, discovered that in the winter, cougars selected bed sites that were in alignment with the hypotheses of both thermoregulatory AND predator avoidance.
In the winter, cougar “beds” / communal sleeping areas were located:
- on steeper slopes, but at lower elevations
- closer to the forest edge
- on southern, eastern, and western-facing slopes
Research concerning the landscape in the summer, showed that bedding areas were a bit different. They found that cougars chose predator avoidance over thermoregulation.
Summer Bedding was found to be:
- closer to forest edges
- away from sagebrush and meadow habitat classes
- on steeper slopes.
2. Microsite Choices
At the microsite scale, cougar bed characteristic in BOTH the winter and summer supported BOTH of their hypotheses of predator avoidance and thermoregulatory.
Cougars chose bed sites that included:
- high canopy cover
- high vegetative concealment
- in a rugged habitat class (characterized by cliff bands and talus fields)
Note: Talus is steep, loose piles of rock, formed by the constant process of erosion, and ubiquitous to the mountains. Talus deposits typically have a concave upwards form. To mountain climbers, Talus areas are not technical challenging areas to hike, but climbing Talus can be exhausting—and dangerous as well, due to the possibility of landslides consider this an area. Cliff bands consist of steep, narrow passages.
Puuurfectly Suited for the Terrain
Looking at the two terrains pictured above, most people wonder how and why a mountain lion would choose to navigate those kinds of steep terrains, but these wild cats are designed for this habitat. Pumas have incredible paws! Their feet have a unique bone structure that enables them to grip rocks, logs, and slippery substrates. They are even better at this kind of “hiking” than bears or wolves!
….So a precarious bed site can offer an escape advantage if a competitor tries to sneak up mid-nap. You’ll probably never see a puma sleep in an open field, as they typically bed down where trees or other landscape features provide a quick escape. –-TCP member Anna Kusler
Researchers found that a subordinate predator (pumas) selected bed sites that allowed for both thermoregulatory and anti-predator functions. Brilliant, eh?? These choices are very similar to what we see occurring in many prey species! Remember: Cats of all shapes, sizes, and species can be both predator and prey.
It’s also important to recognize that across their range, pumas overlap with six apex predators, including the gray wolf, grizzly bear, American black bear, jaguar, coyote, and maned wolf. How’s that for competition for resources and the possibility of become prey?!
“Even though most of us probably think of pumas as top predators with little to fear, that’s not always the case. In North America, much larger grizzly and black bears steal their hard-earned kills. Wolves, as pack animals, steal their kills AND kill them and their kittens.” -TCP A.Kusler
The biologists now believe that studying bed site characteristics of subordinate predators could provide a new way to measure the use of refugia (an area where a population of organisms can survive through a period of unfavorable conditions). This would ultimately provide new insights into the habitat requirements and energetics of subordinate carnivores. Their research highlights some nuances of habitat loss that are easy to overlook. When trying to protect large predators like pumas, many people — including researchers — focus on the availability of prey. But this is only part of the puma picture.
“Because the best hunting habitats are not necessarily the safest places to sleep, a puma must find a home range that can provide both types of environment.”
Below is one of the videos they shared with the public, and used in their studies that shed light on where and why pumas chose to bed with other pumas:
We often found puma beds tucked underneath the low-lying boughs of a tree, or against the rugged face of an inaccessible cliff. They seem to prefer steep, rugged terrain, like cliff bands and boulder fields. – A. Kusler
Cats can snooze like no other. A pussycat can pass out while purring, and some even doze off when bird watching out a window! Cats never seem to venture far from a nap. The house cat’s pendulum swings between sleeping and stalking so well, we’ve named a version of napping after them! A cat could be fully aroused one moment, engaging in passionate play or serious stalking, then fall effortlessly back into a catnap. These cat nappers know what they are doing. Feline veterinarians agree that if a cat is awake most of 24 hour period of the day, there could be something wrong. Like their wild ancestors, house cats are programmed for proper sleep; it’s in their DNA. This instinctual need lets the cat that know that when he/she is not chasing, hunting, eating, or grooming, h/she should be sleeping — or at least searching for a place to sleep.
The family of Felidae is made up of solitary predators. Lions are the exception; they cooperatively hunt. But new research has shown that female cougars may benefit from tolerating males during feeding, through the maintenance of social niches that support breeding opportunities. – Who says females don’t have ulterior motives when it comes to survival of their species? 😉 And when it comes to sleeping, not only could all cats in the Felida family compete in sleeping as an Olympic trial, but where they snooze, and with whom they choose to catnap, is quite particular for these felines.
Cat guardians have seen the amusing and strange ways cats sleep. We have noticed how often they sleep, and where they sleep. But why they are choosing these places, spaces, and bedfellows is linked to their ancestors. So is the fact that house cats are crepuscular: They are biologically programmed to be most active/ awake in the twilight hours of dusk and dawn.
Pumas may not have the option of passing out on an enclosed patio, but they do have comparable choices about where they sleep in their native, wild habitats. Pumas, like our house cats, need to find safe sleeping spots. These places must be located where it’s unlikely other predators / potential threats can harm them or disturb them.
“So, like your housecat loves to sleep in the sunny warmth of a windowsill, pumas like to maximize their exposure to the sun’s rays That meant many bed sites were on south-facing slopes, where the warmth from the sun is strongest.” – Anna Kusler
Considering Cats and Cougars
As we wrap this cougar chat up, I’d like for you to consider something about your cat at home. The next time you spot your house cat snoozing in a sack, inside an empty box, on a shelf, or any other safe cozy place, consider how this behavior is inextricably linked to their wild ancestors. Your feline family member has the same innate desire and need to remain silent and hidden, just like the puma napping under the boughs of a tree or the crags of a cliff, perched high above the world. Once we know this, and recognize the importance of this, we can properly provide our house cats with the safe spaces, and cozy places they need … just like their wild feline ancestors.
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”― Anaïs Nin
References & Recommended Reading:
“Microsite Selection and the Informed Planter”. http://www.for.gov.bc.ca. Retrieved 2016-12-14.