A landmark study has just been released by scientists from the big cat conservation group Panthera. It describes repeat observations of relatively peaceful, social interactions between a supposedly solitary carnivore: the puma (AKA mountain lion, cougar, Florida panther, Puma concolor).
The study, led by Dr. Mark Elbroch, took place in northwestern Wyoming. Elbroch and his colleagues put GPS collars on 16 pumas, which allowed them to track the cats’ movements. When the data from a puma’s collar indicated a cluster of points in one area, the scientists visited the location to see if the cat had made a kill. When it had, they placed motion-activated video cameras at the site (Elbroch, Levy, Lubell, Quigley, & Caragiuol, 2017).
Elbroch et al. (2017) were able to record remarkable interactions between pumas. They found that unrelated cats repeatedly shared food, and with minimal aggression. In total, Elbroch and his crew documented 81 instances of pumas tolerating each other at kills – for lengths of time ranging from 2 to 121 hours (Elbroch et al., 2017).
Elbroch et al. (2017) contend that food-sharing among pumas in their study area can best be described as direct reciprocity. When one puma shared food with another, then the latter cat was 7.7 times more likely to return the favor. In the case of pumas in northwestern Wyoming, sharing food may limit aggression between individuals and reduce the amount of hunting they have to do.
However, reciprocity amongst pumas did not occur evenly. The cats tended to form triads consisting of two females and one male, and were more likely to tolerate their “partners” than non-triad members. In addition, females “gave” food (made a kill and then let another puma feed from it) more readily than males (Elborch et al., 2017).
Furthermore, the pumas in Elbroch et al.’s (2017) study area formed two communities. There was more tolerance within communities than there was between communities. These networks were structured by the behavior of the two territorial males, which has important implications for trophy hunting.
Sport hunters frequently target large, dominant males. Since these are the same individuals who maintain puma social networks, their loss may have negative impacts for many cats (Elbroch et al., 2017).
Previous research has found that high levels of trophy hunting can paradoxically increase human-puma conflicts (Peebles, Wielgus, Maletzke, & Swanson, 2013; Teichman, Cristescu, & Darimont, 2016). These authors theorized that this might be due to the social disruption caused by the loss of territorial males, and Elbroch et al.’s (2017) results support their conclusions. But this new study has other implications as well.
Elbroch et al.’s (2017) findings challenge traditional beliefs about pumas. They show that although they spend much of their time alone, they are not asocial. The same might be true of other solitary carnivores, such as jaguars. In addition, this study provides evidence that non-human animals are smart enough to engage in direct reciprocity. This is a point that many scientists disagree on (Elbroch et al., 2017).
This is a truly remarkable study, and I cannot recommend it enough. I highly suggest you follow the link below and read Elbroch et al.’s (2017) paper.
Elbroch, L. M., Levy, M., Lubell, M., Quigley, H., & Caragiulo, A. (2017). Adaptive social strategies in a solitary carnivore. Science Advances, 3(10). http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1701218.
Pumas: I’ll Share My Meal if You Share Yours – Dr. Mark Elbroch