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Pumas found to exhibit behav­iours like social animals

pub­lished 15 Octo­ber 2017 | mod­i­fied 15 Octo­ber 2017

Pumas, long known as soli­tary car­ni­vores, are more social than pre­vi­ously thought, accord­ing to a new study pub­lished on 11 Octo­ber in the jour­nal Sci­ence Advances. The find­ings pro­vide the first evi­dence of com­plex social strate­gies in any soli­tary car­ni­vore – and may have impli­ca­tions for mul­ti­ple species, includ­ing other wild cats around the world.

It’s the com­plete oppo­site of what we’ve been say­ing about pumas and soli­tary species for over 60 years,” said lead author and Pan­thera Puma Pro­gram lead sci­en­tist Mark Elbroch, Ph.D. “We were shocked – this research allows us to break down mytholo­gies and ques­tion what we thought we knew.”

Usu­ally termed ‘soli­tary car­ni­vores,’ pumas (Puma con­color) have been assumed to avoid each other, except dur­ing mat­ing, ter­ri­to­r­ial encoun­ters, or when rais­ing young. The pop­u­la­tion of pumas that was stud­ied inter­acted every 1112 days dur­ing win­ter, which is very infre­quently com­pared to more gre­gar­i­ous species like meerkats, African lions, or wolves, which inter­act as often as every few min­utes. So to doc­u­ment social behav­iour, Dr. Elbroch and his field research team had to fol­low pumas over longer time spans.

Puma social networkPuma net­work
Graph­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the net­work over­laid the ter­ri­to­ries of res­i­dent and subadult male pumas. M29 and M85, ter­ri­to­r­ial males rep­re­sented with puma icons, delin­eate the spa­tial extent of the two com­mu­ni­ties iden­ti­fied through our analy­sis. Inset: An inter­ac­tion between two adult females (UncF2 and F51) over the prey killed by F51.
Elbroch et al., 2017. Adap­tive social strate­gies in a soli­tary car­ni­vore, in Sci­ence ADvances.

Using GPS tech­nol­ogy and motion-​triggered cam­eras in north­west Wyoming, the team col­lected thou­sands of loca­tions from GPS-​equipped col­lars and doc­u­mented the social inter­ac­tions of pumas over 1,000 prey car­casses (242 with motion-​triggered cam­eras that filmed inter­ac­tions). Then, they used cutting-​edge analy­ses of puma net­works to reveal that the species exhibits social strate­gies like more social ani­mals, just over longer timescales. The research is the first to quan­tify com­plex, endur­ing, and ‘friendly’ inter­ac­tions of these secre­tive ani­mals, reveal­ing a rich puma soci­ety far more tol­er­ant and social than pre­vi­ously thought.

Our research shows that food shar­ing among this group of pumas is a social activ­ity, which can­not be explained by eco­log­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal fac­tors alone.

Mark Lubell, co-​author, direc­tor of the UC Davis Cen­ter for Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­icy and Behavior

Here’s a break­down of the most sur­pris­ing findings:

1. Every puma par­tic­i­pated in a ‘net­work’ of indi­vid­u­als shar­ing food with each other. Each puma co-​fed with another puma at least once dur­ing the study, and many of them fed with other pumas many times.

2. Choos­ing indi­vid­u­als with whom to share meals was not ran­dom or reserved for fam­ily mem­bers. The pumas seemed to recall who shared food with them in the past – and were 7.7 times more likely to share with those indi­vid­u­als. This is usu­ally only doc­u­mented with social animals.

3. Males received more free meat than females, and males and females likely ben­e­fited dif­fer­ently from social inter­ac­tions. Males got meat, while females likely received social invest­ments facil­i­tat­ing mat­ing opportunities.

4. Ter­ri­to­r­ial males acted like gov­er­nors of ‘fief­doms’, struc­tur­ing how all pumas across the land­scape inter­acted with each other. All pumas liv­ing inside each male ter­ri­tory typ­i­cally formed a sin­gle net­work, and were more likely to share their food with each other. Social inter­ac­tions occurred across these bor­ders, but much less fre­quently than among cats within the same male territory.

The study empha­sizes that puma pop­u­la­tions are actu­ally com­posed of numer­ous smaller com­mu­ni­ties ruled by ter­ri­to­r­ial males. The loss of males, whether by nat­ural or human causes, poten­tially dis­rupts the entire social network.

Videos and images cap­tured dur­ing the study served as ‘irrefutable’ evi­dence of social behav­iour, Dr. Elbroch said. “Sud­denly, I was able to see what was hap­pen­ing when these ani­mals were com­ing together. By step­ping back, we cap­tured the pat­terns of behav­iour that have no doubt been occur­ring among pumas all along.”

Except for lions and chee­tahs (whose males form long-​term social groups), all wild cats are typ­i­cally described as soli­tary – a strat­egy char­ac­ter­is­tic of species liv­ing in com­plex habi­tats where preda­tors com­pete for dis­persed prey. This study should encour­age researchers to study the social behav­iour of other soli­tary carnivores.

This work goes against con­ven­tion for soli­tary car­ni­vores, but our evi­dence is sup­ported by both behav­iour and genet­ics,” said co-​author Anthony Carag­iulo, Assis­tant Direc­tor of Genomic Oper­a­tions at the Sack­ler Insti­tute for Com­par­a­tive Genomics at the Amer­i­can Museum of Nat­ural History.

Dr. Elbroch stated, “This opens the door to enor­mous pos­si­bil­i­ties. Are pumas every­where behav­ing the same, or only in areas with large prey? Are other species like leop­ards and wolver­ines and so many oth­ers act­ing the same way? There is so much more to dis­cover about the rich, secret social lives of wild creatures.”

(Source: Pan­thera press release, 11.10.2017)

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