Cougars as Ecosystem Engineers: Great Interview

A mountain lion burying a kill so that it can return and feed later.
A mountain lion (AKA cougar, puma, Florida panther) caching – or burying – a kill so that it can return to the carcass later. Caching by Jon Nelson. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I just listened to the most exciting interview on The Jefferson Exchange. In it, Geoffrey Riley talked to Dr. Mark Elbroch and graduate student Josh Barry about a truly fascinating study that they just published about cougars’ (Puma concolor; mountain lions; pumas) roles as ecosystem engineers.

An ecosystem engineer is a species that significantly alters its habitat, such as beavers and human beings. As Dr. Elbroch explains in the interview, he and his co-researchers have been studying pumas in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) since the year 2000. Because their research permits required Dr. Elbroch and his team to visit every puma kill site that they could, they decided to examine how the presence of these deer and elk carcasses might be affecting the landscape.

What they learned is that the large chunks of meat left behind by pumas had a significantly positive impact on beetle abundance and diversity. Up to 215 species of beetles can use a single puma kill for a variety of purposes: eating the leftover meat, eating fur and skin, laying eggs, hiding from predators, preying on the snails that thrive in the moist soil underneath carcasses, and more. These beetles, in turn, are vital parts of the GYE, since they clean up waste and recycle nutrients back into the earth.

It’s not just beetles that benefit from puma kills, either. Elbroch, Barry, and their colleagues learned that the diversity of birds and mammals that feed on puma kills is higher than any other source of carrion on the planet.

The diversity of birds and mammals that feed on puma kills is higher than any other source of carrion on the planet.

(Elbroch, Barry, & Riley, 2019, 4:50)

What makes puma kills so special? It comes down to how they eat. When a puma consumes a deer or elk that it brought down, the cat leaves most of the carcass intact. This means that pumas tend to deposit large chunks of meat on the landscape, whereas wolves (Canis lupus) tear a carcass apart and leave small pieces of meat scattered over a larger area. It turns out that the large chunks of meat left behind by pumas are more ecologically important than smaller, more dispersed remains.

This really is a fascinating interview, and at only seventeen minutes long, it doesn’t consume much time. I thus strongly recommend that you follow the link below to learn more.

Click Here to Listen to the Interview with Dr. Mark Elbroch and Josh
Barry, hosted by Geoffrey Riley

12 Thoughts

    1. Haha, that’s why I usually use the labels “puma” or “mountain lion” when talking about this particular species of cat. But the original source said “cougar,” so…

      I’m sure the other cougars are ecosystem engineers too, in their own way XD


  1. Cougars as engineers of the ecosystem, that is quite fascinating there is just so much more to these animals than what meets the eye, that if more people made an effort to just find out more about them, then I reckon some of their mindsets would be changed from thinking of them as a danger and more like a necessity to the environment.

    Liked by 1 person

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