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Oct 7, 2019 10:45 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

The Mountain Lion As Ecosystem Engineer

New research reveals the role of mountain lions as “ecosystem engineers,” supplying 3.3 million pounds of meat per day to a huge array of scavengers throughout their range in the Western Hemisphere. USFWS
Oct 7, 2019 1:14 PM

Did the mountain lion ever roam Long Island’s landscape?In his excellent 1971 publication, “The Mammals of Long Island, New York,” under a section titled “Vanished Recent Mammals,” scientist Paul F. Connor mentions several species of large carnivores that coexisted here with the Native Americans, including the black bear and gray wolf.

He explains, “Because this area is coastal and insular, and was heavily settled early in Colonial times, most of the large wild animals were rather quickly exterminated. A few mountain lions, or panthers (Felis concolor), may have been present then, too, but there seems to be no information about them on Long Island; if a few of these large cats roamed the island originally, they probably disappeared very early in the Colonial period, which is apparently what happened in various other areas along the East Coast.”

While we can’t be absolutely certain that Long Island was once populated by mountain lions, its historic range included the entire Eastern Seaboard. In fact, this animal had the largest range of any mammal in the Western Hemisphere: the lower 48 states, southern Canada, Central America and all of South America. It is quite an adaptable creature, being able to survive in a wide range of habitat types, including forest and prairie, mountains and lowlands, deserts and tropics. I thought readers would be interested in learning about the findings of some new research on this species.

Last weekend I met up with Dr. Mark Elbroch, scientist and Puma Program director for Panthera, a conservation organization devoted exclusively to the world’s 40 cat species. Puma is one of many common names for the mountain lion, cougar, panther and catamount, to name a few that I’ve heard and read.

Mark is also an incredible tracker. He mentored with Louis Liebenberg in the CyberTracker Evaluation Standards in South Africa, and in 2005 brought that evaluation system to North America. I began mentoring under this program in 2014 with one of Mark’s colleagues, George Leoniak, and brought George and the “Reading Wildlife Track and Sign” program to Long Island that same year. Since then George has led eight tracking evaluations here on Long Island, and trained over 60 natural resource managers, teachers, environmental educators and naturalists.

Several of Mark’s findings during his 17-year-long study of mountain lions in Wyoming do not concur with the general notion of these big cats. One is the notion that cougars are solitary animals, and their social interactions are limited to mating or territorial disputes. In fact, Mark documented food sharing, and reciprocity between two cats, with the cat sharing its kill in one instance being allowed to feed on a kill by the other cat at a later time.

Another interesting finding was the use of mountain lion kills by other carnivores and scavengers. Using remote cameras at kill sites, 39 species of birds and mammals were documented feeding on the carcasses, birds ranging in size from golden and bald eagles to chickadees, and mammals from black and grizzly bears to mice and flying squirrels. And 215 species of invertebrates were not only feeding on the kills, but many were living their entire lives on the carcasses: finding mates, laying eggs, hatching larvae and morphing into adults, all on the carrion.

They lose or abandon on average 39 percent of their kills to scavengers. In this sense, mountain lions are “ecosystem engineers” that are supporting many species in the ecosystem. Across their huge range in North, South and Central America, Elbroch estimates that mountain lions supply an amazing 3.3 million pounds of meat to other creatures in the ecosystem on a daily basis.

Why are mountain lions so generous with their hard-won food resources? Although they are big animals, weighing up to 200 pounds, when they are mature adults their prey consists of young deer and elk, weighing between 100 and 500 pounds. Averaging at least one kill every two weeks, and discounting the bones and other low nutritional material, that’s a lot of meat for one animal to consume.

Mountain lions would rather have the carcass for themselves, but the fact that they take up to a week to polish off a relatively large deer or elk means there’s lots of time and opportunities for scavengers to join the feast. Wolves, on the other hand, hunting in groups, will polish off the same size kill in a day. And armed with powerful jaws and shearing teeth that can cut through bone, wolves leave relatively little material for other species at their kill sites. Mark also theorizes that the wolf’s distance-running hunting strategy expends more energy than the mountain lion’s sit, wait and ambush tactic.

The distribution of the mountain lion has slowly shifted eastward in recent years, but it will be a long time before it naturally recolonizes the Northeast. Young males are known to make long-distance movements when they are old enough to leave the care of their mother and strike out on their own, as was the case of the individual from South Dakota that was struck by a car in Connecticut in 2011. But that aberrant behavior is not very conducive to establishing a breeding population in the East.

The many verified sightings of mountain lions have proven, through DNA analysis, to be cats from South America. These were purchased as pets when they were young, as was likely the case with the Sag Harbor caracals (an African cat) roaming the Long Pond Greenbelt last year.

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