Mountain lions are fascinating and elusive predators. They're all over the Western United States, but you rarely ever see them. Of course, when people do see them, such encounters usually get splashed all over the news. While they’re not the boogieman they’re often made out to be, they are lethal and efficient killers.
This trail cam footage is from a recent mountain lion kill we discovered during a winter population study in the Sapphire Mountains of Western Montana. The conservation organization MPG Ranch runs the project, which provides a long-term look at resident mountain lion populations and how individuals interact. The study is noninvasive, meaning the cougars we follow are never tranquilized, handled, or collared. Instead, we track them in the snow to kill sites like this one, where we collect hair and scat for DNA analysis and set up cameras to match the genetics we find with the scenes that played out before we arrived.
In this footage, a mother and her yearling take turns feeding. A whitetail doe kill like this will only sustain the pair for a few days. Plucking hair from the deer before feeding is typical behavior, which leaves behind the easily recognizable hair mat that is often indicative of an old kill site. Mountain lions are very particular about their kills, and these sites follow a predictable pattern. The remains are mainly left intact (unlike coyotes or wolves who often scatter the kill), and beds and latrines are usually right nearby.
Cougars also cache their kills, which means they cover them with grass, leaves, or whatever is at hand to hide them from would-be scavengers. Once the magpies find it, the word is out. Younger mountain lions take some time learning how to do this, and this yearling’s caching efforts extend to the nearby ponderosa pine. A mountain lion’s rookie year involves a steep learning curve, and low kitten survival rates indicate that many never see a second season. Half or more of any given litter don’t make it to adulthood.
It’s notable that the mother here has a tawnier coat than her grayer offspring, which is now free from its kitten spots and faded dapples. Instead, the yearling has the distinctive dark barring on the inside of the forelimb that marks it as a young cougar. This barring will stick around until the cat is 2 or 3 years old. Otherwise, this youngster will look just like its mother when it leaves her side at around 15 months of age. Both cats have ears that appear to show signs of frostbite damage, making them easier to identify in the future. Frostbite is a painful misfortune for the cats but is also conveniently recognizable for our research purposes.
If you want to learn more about the project or mountain lions in general, check out "Tracking Notes: The Secret World of Mountain Lions" premiering at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana on Sunday, Feb. 27 at 12:30 pm.