This post deals with the extirpation of pumas in the eastern two-thirds of the U.S., and some of the controversy surrounding the existence of a distinct eastern subspecies. Part 2 of this series will be written by me, and it will be released as a guest post on Jess’ blog sometime in the future.
When the Cat’s Away: Part 1
By Jess Turner, author of Definearth
This blog is the first in a two-part series about the recently delisted Eastern cougar, and consequent propositions that the subspecies may or may not have ever existed. The Eastern cougar’s presence has not been confirmed in the past 80 years – yet its origins are still in debate. We review the facts in these blogs.
Mountain lions can travel thousands of miles looking for mates, prey, or just exploring the natural environment.
Therefore, it is not surprising that a puma spotted in the east coast could be mistaken for a distinct species when it’s really just a wandering North American puma. Articles like this one by Reuters Online admit the species has gone extinct, but don’t address the variability in information about the cat’s origins or identity. There is abundant controversy over whether Eastern cougars ever existed as a genetically-distinct subspecies from mountain lions in the west. Cougars are known to display varying phenotypic traits like fur color or size, but this does not necessarily confirm a different subspecies.
So why did the mountain lion go extinct east of the Mississippi? According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the cat was hunted to extinction. Now, I’ve never heard of puma burgers so I’m lead to believe that they weren’t killed for food.
In the 1800s, pumas were targeted as a nuisance species for their reputation of snacking on livestock. Their fur was harvested secondarily. Another factor that likely didn’t help was the overhunting of white-tailed deer: cougars’ main prey. Habitat loss and fragmentation are also blamed for the cat’s disappearance.
Although fragmentation – or the division of natural habitat into smaller, more widely-spaced pieces of habitat – is still a prominent issue today, deer have since recovered due to hunting laws. At present, the Northeast US faces severe issues with deer ticks that embed in human skin and cause many diseases: including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Evidently, the puma’s extirpation has created a ripple effect.
“If a body is left out in the sun and rain, its DNA will be useful for testing for only a few weeks” – Forrest Wickman on Slate.com
An article by National Geographic suggests that hard scientific evidence, specifically genetic tests, have proven the Eastern cougar to be a mere fallacy.
In the past, scientific studies were conducted on the regional scale to determine the origins of local cats. For instance, a study by the University of California Davis in Conservation Genetics revealed genetic differences in California alone. Considering the results of this study, it is possible Eastern cougars did have a unique gene sequence.
“Analysis of…431 mountain lions revealed distinct genetic subdivision that was associated with geographic barriers and isolation by distance in California” – Ernest et al., 2003.
However, no genetic testing has been conducted to pinpoint the differences between Eastern cougars and other subspecies. Such exhaustive testing would be difficult considering the last cat vanished in the 1930’s and DNA can degrade quickly when not stored properly.
Why do you think the Eastern cougar is such a hotly debated topic? And which species do you think we should try to protect, assuming there is a finite amount of resources to do so?
Thanks for reading, and be sure to look out for Part Two.
More Information on the Pumas’ Decline in the East:
Dr. Mark Elbroch – Eastern Cougar “Extinction” – Some Key Points
Mountain Lion Foundation – History of Lions in New York (While the title of this page says ‘New York’, it contains information about the history of pumas throughout the eastern U.S.)
The Huffington Post – Eastern Cougar Extinct: Mountain Lion Declared Gone from East US
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Eastern Cougar fact sheet