Large “hypercarnivorous” felids are recognized for their role as apex predators and hence as key elements in food webs and ecosystem functioning through competition and depredation. Here we show that cougars (Puma concolor), one of the largest and the most widely ranging apex felid predators with a strictly carnivorous diet, could also be effective secondary long distance seed dispersers, potentially establishing direct and non-herbivore mediated interactions with plant species at the bottom of the food web. Cougars accidently ingest and disseminate large amounts of seeds (31,678 seeds in 123 scats) of plant species initially consumed by their main prey, the Eared Dove Zenaida auriculata. The germination potential of seeds for the three plant species most abundantly found in cougar scats (19,570 seeds) was not significantly different from that observed in seeds obtained from dove gizzards, indicating that seed passage through cougar guts did not affect seed germination. Considering the estimated cougar density in our study area, dispersal of seeds by cougars could allow a mean, annual seed spread of ~5,000 seeds per km(2). Our results demonstrate that strictly carnivorous, felid predators could have broad and overlooked ecological functions related to ecosystem structuring and functioning.
The cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, is the fastest living land mammal. Because of its specialized hunting strategy, this species evolved a series of specialized morphological and functional body features to increase its exceptional predatory performance during high-speed hunting. Using high-resolution X-ray computed micro-tomography (μCT), we provide the first analyses of the size and shape of the vestibular system of the inner ear in cats, an organ essential for maintaining body balance and adapting head posture and gaze direction during movement in most vertebrates. We demonstrate that the vestibular system of modern cheetahs is extremely different in shape and proportions relative to other cats analysed (12 modern and two fossil felid species), including a closely-related fossil cheetah species. These distinctive attributes (i.e., one of the greatest volumes of the vestibular system, dorsal extension of the anterior and posterior semicircular canals) correlate with a greater afferent sensitivity of the inner ear to head motions, facilitating postural and visual stability during high-speed prey pursuit and capture. These features are not present in the fossil cheetah A. pardinensis, that went extinct about 126,000 years ago, demonstrating that the unique and highly specialized inner ear of the sole living species of cheetah likely evolved extremely recently, possibly later than the middle Pleistocene.
Remedial sport hunting of predators is often used to reduce predator populations and associated complaints and livestock depredations. We assessed the effects of remedial sport hunting on reducing cougar complaints and livestock depredations in Washington from 2005 to 2010 (6 years). The number of complaints, livestock depredations, cougars harvested, estimated cougar populations, human population and livestock populations were calculated for all 39 counties and 136 GMUs (game management units) in Washington. The data was then analyzed using a negative binomial generalized linear model to test for the expected negative relationship between the number of complaints and depredations in the current year with the number of cougars harvested the previous year. As expected, we found that complaints and depredations were positively associated with human population, livestock population, and cougar population. However, contrary to expectations we found that complaints and depredations were most strongly associated with cougars harvested the previous year. The odds of increased complaints and livestock depredations increased dramatically (36 to 240%) with increased cougar harvest. We suggest that increased young male immigration, social disruption of cougar populations, and associated changes in space use by cougars - caused by increased hunting resulted in the increased complaints and livestock depredations. Widespread indiscriminate hunting does not appear to be an effective preventative and remedial method for reducing predator complaints and livestock depredations.
The importance of examining multiple hierarchical levels when modeling resource use for wildlife has been acknowledged for decades. Multi-level resource selection functions have recently been promoted as a method to synthesize resource use across nested organizational levels into a single predictive surface. Analyzing multiple scales of selection within each hierarchical level further strengthens multi-level resource selection functions. We extend this multi-level, multi-scale framework to modeling resistance for wildlife by combining multi-scale resistance surfaces from two data types, genetic and movement. Resistance estimation has typically been conducted with one of these data types, or compared between the two. However, we contend it is not an either/or issue and that resistance may be better-modeled using a combination of resistance surfaces that represent processes at different hierarchical levels. Resistance surfaces estimated from genetic data characterize temporally broad-scale dispersal and successful breeding over generations, whereas resistance surfaces estimated from movement data represent fine-scale travel and contextualized movement decisions. We used telemetry and genetic data from a long-term study on pumas (Puma concolor) in a highly developed landscape in southern California to develop a multi-level, multi-scale resource selection function and a multi-level, multi-scale resistance surface. We used these multi-level, multi-scale surfaces to identify resource use patches and resistant kernel corridors. Across levels, we found puma avoided urban, agricultural areas, and roads and preferred riparian areas and more rugged terrain. For other landscape features, selection differed among levels, as did the scales of selection for each feature. With these results, we developed a conservation plan for one of the most isolated puma populations in the U.S. Our approach captured a wide spectrum of ecological relationships for a population, resulted in effective conservation planning, and can be readily applied to other wildlife species.
Understanding population and individual-level behavioral responses of large carnivores to human disturbance is important for conserving top predators in fragmented landscapes. However, previous research has not investigated resource selection at predation sites of mountain lions in highly urbanized areas. We quantified selection of natural and anthropogenic landscape features by mountain lions at sites where they consumed their primary prey, mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), in and adjacent to urban, suburban, and rural areas in greater Los Angeles. We documented intersexual and individual-level variation in the environmental conditions present at mule deer feeding sites relative to their availability across home ranges. Males selected riparian woodlands and areas closer to water more than females, whereas females selected developed areas marginally more than males. Females fed on mule deer closer to developed areas and farther from riparian woodlands than expected based on the availability of these features across their home ranges. We suggest that mortality risk for females and their offspring associated with encounters with males may have influenced the different resource selection patterns between sexes. Males appeared to select mule deer feeding sites mainly in response to natural landscape features, while females may have made kills closer to developed areas in part because these are alternative sites where deer are abundant. Individual mountain lions of both sexes selected developed areas more strongly within home ranges where development occurred less frequently. Thus, areas near development may represent a trade-off for mountain lions such that they may benefit from foraging near development because of abundant prey, but as the landscape becomes highly urbanized these benefits may be outweighed by human disturbance.
The geographic distribution and habitat association of most mammalian polymorphic phenotypes are still poorly known, hampering assessments of their adaptive significance. Even in the case of the black panther, an iconic melanistic variant of the leopard (Panthera pardus), no map exists describing its distribution. We constructed a large database of verified records sampled across the species' range, and used it to map the geographic occurrence of melanism. We then estimated the potential distribution of melanistic and non-melanistic leopards using niche-modeling algorithms. The overall frequency of melanism was ca. 11%, with a significantly non-random spatial distribution. Distinct habitat types presented significantly different frequencies of melanism, which increased in Asian moist forests and approached zero across most open/dry biomes. Niche modeling indicated that the potential distributions of the two phenotypes were distinct, with significant differences in habitat suitability and rejection of niche equivalency between them. We conclude that melanism in leopards is strongly affected by natural selection, likely driven by efficacy of camouflage and/or thermoregulation in different habitats, along with an effect of moisture that goes beyond its influence on vegetation type. Our results support classical hypotheses of adaptive coloration in animals (e.g. Gloger’s rule), and open up new avenues for in-depth evolutionary analyses of melanism in mammals.
Pumas (Puma concolor) live in diverse, often rugged, complex habitats. The energy they expend for hunting must account for this complexity but is difficult to measure for this and other large, cryptic carnivores. We developed and deployed a physiological SMART (species movement, acceleration, and radio tracking) collar that used accelerometry to continuously monitor energetics, movements, and behavior of free-ranging pumas. This felid species displayed marked individuality in predatory activities, ranging from low-cost sit-and-wait behaviors to constant movements with energetic costs averaging 2.3 times those predicted for running mammals. Pumas reduce these costs by remaining cryptic and precisely matching maximum pouncing force (overall dynamic body acceleration = 5.3 to 16.1g) to prey size. Such instantaneous energetics help to explain why most felids stalk and pounce, and their analysis represents a powerful approach for accurately forecasting resource demands required for survival by large, mobile predators.
The occurrence of melanism (darkening of the background coloration) is documented in 13 felid species, in some cases reaching high frequencies at the population level. Recent analyses have indicated that it arose multiple times in the Felidae, with three different species exhibiting unique mutations associated with this trait. The causative mutations in the remaining species have so far not been identified, precluding a broader assessment of the evolutionary dynamics of melanism in the Felidae. Among these, the leopard (Panthera pardus) is a particularly important target for research, given the iconic status of the ‘black panther’ and the extremely high frequency of melanism observed in some Asian populations. Another felid species from the same region, the Asian golden cat (Pardofelis temminckii), also exhibits frequent records of melanism in some areas. We have sequenced the coding region of the Agouti Signaling Protein (ASIP) gene in multiple leopard and Asian golden cat individuals, and identified distinct mutations strongly associated with melanism in each of them. The single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) detected among the P. pardus individuals was caused by a nonsense mutation predicted to completely ablate ASIP function. A different SNP was identified in P. temminckii, causing a predicted amino acid change that should also induce loss of function. Our results reveal two additional cases of species-specific mutations implicated in melanism in the Felidae, and indicate that ASIP mutations may play an important role in naturally-occurring coloration polymorphism.
Although parvoviruses are commonly described in domestic carnivores, little is known about their biodiversity in non-domestic species. A phylogenetic analysis of VP2 gene sequences from puma, coyote, gray wolf, bobcat, raccoon, and striped skunk revealed two major groups related to either feline panleukopenia virus (‘FPV-like’) or canine parvovirus (‘CPV-like’). Cross-species transmission was commonplace, with multiple introductions into each host species but, with the exception of raccoons, relatively little evidence for onward transmission in non-domestic species.
Wide-ranging large carnivores pose myriad challenges for conservation, especially in highly fragmented landscapes. Over a 13-year period, we combined monitoring of radio collared pumas (Puma concolor) with complementary multi-generational genetic analyses to inform puma conservation in southern California, USA. Our goals were to generate survivorship estimates, determine causes of mortality, identify barriers to movement, and determine the genetic and demographic challenges to puma persistence among >20,000,000 people and extensive urban, suburban, and exurban development. Despite protection from hunting, annual survival for radio collared pumas was surprisingly low (55.8%), and humans caused the majority of puma deaths. The most common sources of mortality were vehicle collisions (28% of deaths), and mortalities resulting from depredation permits issued after pumas killed domestic animals (17% of deaths). Other human-caused mortalities included illegal shootings, public safety removals, and human-caused wildfire. An interstate highway (I-15) bisecting this study area, and associated development, have created a nearly impermeable barrier to puma movements, resulting in severe genetic restriction and demographic isolation of the small puma population (n ~ 17-27 adults) in the Santa Ana Mountains west of I-15. Highways that bisect habitat or divide remaining “conserved” habitat, and associated ongoing development, threaten to further subdivide this already fragmented puma population and increase threats to survival. This study highlights the importance of combining demographic and genetic analyses, and illustrates that in the absence of effective measures to reduce mortality and enhance safe movement across highways, translocation of pumas, such as was done with the endangered Florida panther (P. c. coryi), may ultimately be necessary to prevent further genetic decline and ensure persistence of the Santa Ana Mountains population.