The findings challenge conventional wisdom not just about pumas, but about supposedly solitary mammals in general, said Mark Elbroch, lead scientist for the puma program at Panthera, a wildcat conservation group, and an author of the study. Perhaps, he said, researchers simply had to take the longer view when deciding just how gregarious less-social animals really are.
Credit Mark Elbroch/Panthera
“Mountain lions interact infrequently — in our study about once every 11 to 12 days during winter,” he said. More social animals like meerkats, wolves and chimpanzees interact consistently throughout the day. But that didn’t mean they were all loners.
“To document reciprocity among mountain lions, we needed to step back and assess behaviors over longer time spans,” he said. By taking the longer view, “we captured the patterns of behavior that have no doubt been occurring among mountain lions all along.”
Dr. Elbroch said he was compelled to perform the research after observing two female pumas share a carcass in 2012 in a forest near Grand Teton National Park. Though he had initially assumed the two animals were sisters, later study revealed them to be unrelated. “So many questions exploded in my head that I just had to pursue some answers,” Dr. Elbroch said.
In the current study, the puma communities were determined largely by the territorial boundaries of the males, said Dr. Elbroch. “Males acted like governors of fiefdoms, structuring how all mountain lions across the landscape interacted with each other,” he said.
Though pumas are found throughout the Americas, hunting and human development have reduced their footprint in North America, where they are now found mostly in Mexico, southern Florida and the Western United States. Though they are listed as an endangered or protected species in many areas, hunting is still allowed in many parts of the U.S.
If pumas are living in communities, it raises new questions about the impact that hunting, especially adult males, may have on the animals, said Dr. Elbroch.
“What are the influences of trophy hunting on the social fabric of mountain lion society?” he said. “There is so much more to learn.”