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Fumbling Cougar Kittens: Learning to Hunt

F99Stretch
F99, orphaned kitten, stretching near a successful kill. She’s wearing a new solar-assisted Iridium collar, which allows us to locate her kills more easily in the field. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera

We recently captured F99, a now 1-year old, orphaned, female cougar kitten followed by Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project (see post Why Adult Cougars Kill Each Other? for how she was orphaned and Orphaned Cougar Kittens and Their Inspiring Will to Survive for some of her adventures since). We swapped out the tiny, expandable collar that we’d given her at 5 weeks old, for a cutting-edge, solar-assisted, light-weight Iridium GPS collar. The Iridium collar is new technology—just 2/3 the weight of our lightest collar previously—and we programmed it to relay her location to our office computers every hour, on the hour, all day long.

We re-captured F99 with the hope that she would teach us something further about how kittens learn to hunt, even without a mother. She was just 36 pounds when we changed out her collar, which is about 20 pounds lighter than a typical 1-yr old female. She’d been physically stunted by her early period of starvation—she looked more like a 6-month old than a 1-yr old mountain lion. But she also looked healthy—her coat was full and shiny. She was thin, but not overly skinny. She’d been eating something, but her tiny kitten collar didn’t allow us the means to track her movements to determine what. And we hadn’t been able to determine whether she had transitioned from surviving through scavenging, mentioned in our last post, to successfully killing prey on her own. So many questions…

M80, a male cougar kitten playing wih a mule deer fawn killed by his mother. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera
M80, a male cougar kitten playing with a mule deer fawn killed by his mother. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera

For species difficult to observe in the wild, like mountain lions, it’s a frustratingly difficult process documenting how they learn the requisite skills to survive on their own. In truth, a more accurate title for this post might be, “Fumbling cougar researchers: trying to learn how kittens learn to hunt,” for we (referring to collective cougar researchers) know essentially nothing about how cougar kittens grow up, learn hunting skills, and successfully become adults. But here I’ll share some recent observations of the secret lives of mountain lions, as well as research pulled from other felids more easily observed—all carefully woven with several healthy dollops of speculation. For this is how science works…observations become anecdotes, and anecdotes accumulate to describe patterns, which in turn accumulate to create descriptions of animal behavior and ecology…

Caro (1980) describes successful hunting as incorporating the diverse skills of 1) identifying prey, 2) stalking prey, and 3) manipulating and dispatching prey. I’ll use these categories of behavior to describe some of what we’ve been observing, but first I would emphasize one more piece of the puzzle—social learning—and that’s where I’ll begin.

Social learning, opportunity learning.

Domestic cat kittens learn predation skills through observing the hunting behaviors of their siblings and mothers (Kuo, 1930; John et al. 1968), and its expected that this is true for other cat species as well. In fact mother cats frequently exhibit “opportunity teaching,” during which they create opportunities for kittens or cubs to observe hunting skills in action or to participate in hunting to practice their developing skills (Caro and Hauser 1992). Learning to hunt requires substantial time, the longest time periods observed in the largest cat species that hunt the largest prey (Kitchener 1999). This makes sense, as it requires additional skills to successfully kill prey much larger than oneself without being killed in the process.

Cougars are difficult to observe in the wild, but we have seen evidence that cougar kittens watch each other as they practice the skills of hunting and killing, as well as evidence that mother mountain lions create learning opportunities for their young (Elbroch and Quigley 2013). This is what makes F99 so interesting—she lost her mother at the end of March when she was 7 months old; cougar kittens generally stay with mothers for 18-20 months in our study area. F99’s sister, F75, succumbed to starvation in June, and so we continue to ask ourselves, can F99 learn to hunt on her own?

Three cougar kittens defending their positions around a beaver carcass. Photograph by Michelle Peziol / Panthera
Three cougar kittens defending their positions around a beaver carcass. Photograph by Michelle Peziol / Panthera

Identifying prey

We generally assume young cats learn what animals are prey through exposure and experience. Mothers role model, kittens follow. Domestic cat kittens, for example, exposed to particular prey (mice versus other animals) during their youth are more efficient at dispatching this same prey as adults (Caro 1980). We also expect this is true for mountain lions, although we’ve also seen plenty of evidence for continued learning as mountain lions experience new types of prey. For example, F97, a young female from F61’s first litter dispersed from her mother’s home range into an area with lots of porcupines. As far as we know, she’d never eaten a porcupine—we tracked her family intensively and porcupines were rare in her mother’s home range. But she killed one in her new range when she was about 2 years old, and then proceeded to kill 23 more over the next two and a half months.

What we learned from F99 in her first month wearing an Iridium collar also had nothing to do with what her mother role-modeled to her while she was alive—a strict elk and deer diet, except for a single American beaver. Since fitting F99 with a GPS collar, we’ve found remains of 7 striped skunks, 1 pocket gopher, 1 red squirrel, 1 Canada goose, 1 ruffed grouse, and 2 American martens—none of these species were presented to her by her mother when she was young.

A striped skunk killed by F99, orphaned kitten on Panthera's Teton Cougar Project. Photograph by Michelle Peziol / Panthera
A striped skunk killed by F99, orphaned kitten on Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project. Photograph by Michelle Peziol / Panthera

Stalking prey

By 3 weeks old, kittens exhibit stalk-and-pounce tactics when playing with their siblings in the den. If there is an innate component to mountain lion hunting, this is certainly it. Every sort of cat of every age can be observed stalking siblings, mothers, insects, birds and any other creature that moves. Stalking and tackling siblings, in fact, appears to dominate the play behaviors of young cougars, and other cats as well.

M80, a 10-month old male cougar kitten stalks his mother, F61. Who better to practice your stalking on, than a mountain lion? Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera
M80, a 10-month old male cougar kitten stalks his mother, F61. Who better to practice your stalking on, than a mountain lion? Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera

Manipulating and dispatching prey

Many cat mothers present wounded prey to their youngsters, with which they can practice predation skills (Caro 1987, Caro and Hauser 1992, Kitchener 1999). The strongest evidence for this type of social learning has been documented in domestic cats and cheetahs (Kruuk and Turner 1966, Caro and Hauser 1992, Kitchener 1999). For example, when cheetah cubs are 5-7 months old, adult females catch and release 33% of their prey for their cubs to kill (Caro 1987, Caro 1994). By 10.5 months of age, incompetent cheetah cubs are inefficiently attacking and beginning to consume 50% of prey captured by their mother. Adult female cheetahs continue to increase opportunity learning for her cubs as they mature, and by the time they are 12.5 months old, mothers are catching and releasing 70% of prey for their cubs to kill (Caro 1987, Caro 1994).

It’s an interesting comparison between F99 and F97, the porcupine-killer I mentioned above. In July, 2012, we were lucky enough to capture footage of F97 and her adopted sister, F88, interacting with a live mule deer fawn. They were 1-year old, the same age as F99, though larger and still dependent upon their mother. We’d never before glimpsed cougar kittens with live prey, and the observation taught us much. Part 1 reveals the kittens’ initial nervousness with the fawn, and Parts 2 and 3 reveal their exploratory predation behaviors, and social learning through observing each other (which has never before been documented for this species). But most important, the videos revealed how inexpert two 1-year old kittens were at killing prey (Elbroch and Quigley 2013). Warning: videos include a live mule deer fawn.

 

F75, F99’s sister, succumbed to starvation in June, when they were 10 months old. We’d been so optimistic about their chances of survival when we first glimpsed them in earliest May, scavenging an old elk carcass. Against all odds, they’d survived their first month as orphans in a landscape filled with predators and other dangers (see Orphaned Cougar Kittens and Their Inspiring Will to Survive ). But as carcasses left over from winter were consumed by other scavengers, F99 and F75 began to starve. They became skeletal zombies moving about in the day, oblivious to their surroundings.

I discovered F75’s remains in an old bed used by their entire family in January of this year. She was curled at the base of a large Douglas Fir tree with an overlook of the surrounding valley. Her teeth were particularly striking and perhaps partly explained her untimely death. F75’s adult canine teeth—the large pointy teeth used for killing at the front of a mountain lion’s mouth—were still erupting from her gums, and had yet to push out her baby teeth. Her baby canines, by contrast, were tiny things too small to puncture the hide of large prey.

And it was this observation that spurred an intervention. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department gave us permission to place a carcass on the landscape for F99. Our goals were several—to provide her the opportunity to grow in her teeth and perhaps learn to hunt on her own, while simultaneously drawing her away from roads where she was more likely to have a negative interaction with people. We located her one afternoon and dropped the hind leg of a road-killed moose in her path. Fifteen minutes later, she discovered the boon; she fed for four days straight, and just like that, became a different cat.

Whereas she had been aimlessly wandering, seemingly unaware of dangers or anything in her surroundings, the moose meal provided her the sustenance to become a mountain lion. The next time we spotted her, she was weaving in between the sagebrush, using trees and shrubs to her advantage to remain invisible. We even found the remains of a ground squirrel that we were fairly certain she had hunted herself.

We fed F99 two more times and after each feeding, she’d wander further and further afield. In her travels, she traversed an area spanning the home ranges of five different resident female mountain lions. We hoped she was hunting small prey while she wandered, but we were unable to find remains until we changed out her collar. Now we know F99’s baby teeth have been successfully replaced by her adult teeth, tools more appropriate to hunting and killing other animals. We also know that unlike F97 and F88, seen in the video above, she is successfully killing small prey with regularity. What we still don’t know is whether she can kill a deer fawn or an elk calf, skills likely essential to survive our upcoming winter? Or will she be able survive the winter and continue to grow and hone her skills by trailing other mountain lions or wolf packs and scavenging from their kills? Time will tell.

 

For any who are interested, join us on Facebook to follow F99 and other cats studied as part of Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project.

Panthera logoCaro, T. M. 1980. The effects of experience on the predatory patterns of cats. Behavioral Neural Biology 29: 1–28.

Caro, T. M. 1987. Indirect costs of play: cheetah cubs reduce maternal hunting
success. Animal Behavior 35: 295–297.

Caro, T. M. 1994. Cheetahs of the Serengeti Plains: Group Living in an Asocial Species. University Of Chicago Press, Chicago, USA. 500 pages.

Caro, T. M., and M. D. Hauser. 1992. Is there teaching in nonhuman animals? Quarterly Review of Biology 67: 151-174.

Elbroch, M. and H. Quigley. 2013. Observations of wild cougar kittens with live prey: implications for learning and survival. Canadian Field Naturalist 126:333-335.

John, R. E., P. Chesler, F. Bartlett, and I. Victor. 1968. Observational learning in cats. Science 159: 1489-1490.

Kitchener, A. C. 1999. Watch with mother: a review of social learning in the Felidae. Pages 236-258 in Mammalian Social Learning: Comparative and Ecological Perspectives. Edited by H. O. Box and K. R. Gibson. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kruuk, H., and M. Turner. 1967. Comparative notes on predation by lion, leopard, cheetah and wild dog in the Serengeti area, East Africa. Mammalia 31: 1-23.

Kuo, Z. Y. 1930. The genesis of the cat’s responses to the rat. Journal of Comparative Psychology 11: 1-35.

Comments

  1. Marcus Grigato
    Blumenau - SC, Brazil
    October 26, 2014, 10:25 pm

    Thanks for the amazing article and for the wonderful work you have been doing, We have few pumas in our region here,
    Unfortunately, there are few studies about their situation.
    I like to read articles like this and think our pumas might have similar behaviour even living in a different landscape and so far from yours. keep writting.

  2. Gwenie Mugliston
    Glen Campbell, PA
    October 24, 2014, 10:34 am

    Fascinating. We have very, very few cougars here. However, my daughter and I both saw one on her farm loping through her yard. Beautiful form and grace. It is hoped F99 is a successful survivalist. It would be nice to read more. You all do very excellent work. Nemaste

  3. Kurt "Joe" Wittman
    Homewood, AL
    October 23, 2014, 9:54 pm

    you guys are doing wonderful work. I enjoy reading about your work! You’re doing a great job keeping people engaged.

  4. Philip Halliwell
    Glenwood Springs, CO
    October 22, 2014, 10:15 pm

    Absolutely fascinating… great work!