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How Pumas Communicate Through Scent Marking

Post Submitted by Max Allen of the Santa Cruz Puma Project.

Like many solitary felids, pumas are cryptic carnivores that are very difficult to observe in the wild. One major aspect of my research is investigating how pumas communicate with each other; as such, I need to observe rarely seen behaviors of this elusive carnivore. My solution to this problem is to use motion-activated video cameras in much of my work.

During my 6 years studying pumas in California, I have found that scraping is their most frequent form of communication (Allen et al. 2014), as shown in the graph below. This is consistent with previous research and observations (Logan and Sweanor 2001, Harmsen et al. 2010). Scraping, as shown in the video above, is where a puma digs into the ground with its hind feet forming a depression and a scraped mound of material (such as dirt, leaves, or duff). Sometimes, the puma will also urinate or defecate onto the scraped mound. This seemed to me to be a highly elaborate form of scent marking when compared to canines who just urinate on prominent objects, and I set out to find out why.

The proportion of visits where scent marking behaviors were performed (Allen et al. 2014)
The proportion of visits where scent marking behaviors were performed (Allen et al. 2014)

I set up motion-activated video cameras at community scrapes, which are scent marking areas that are used by more than one puma. On my field visits I defined a community scrape as a 9 m2 area with 3 or more scrapes in it. I then created an experiment that used a crossover design to determine the relative importance of the physical scrape and urine in scraping behavior. My treatments were the physical scrape only, puma urine only, a combination of both the physical scrape and urine, and a control where I patted the ground with my gloved hand. I then used the motion-activated video cameras at these experimental scrapes to see how pumas responded to the different combinations of the physical scrape and urine.

The results of my experiments suggest that pumas use the physical scrape to locate the signal, and then use the urine and feces to interpret the signal (Allen et al. 2014). Specifically, pumas were more likely to find and investigate the physical scrape than the urine alone or the control. In addition, pumas were as likely to investigate the control as they were puma urine when it was not accompanied by a physical scrape, and spent as long investigating the control as the areas where urine was applied. This suggests that they need the physical scrape to locate the chemical signals left for communication. Importantly, pumas found the physical scrape as often as the physical scrape combined with urine, but investigated the combined physical scrape and urine longer than the physical scrape alone. This highlights the importance of the puma urine to convey the actual message. In essence, the physical scrape is the key to locating the olfactory signal, which is communicated through the scent in the urine.

Pumas use the physical scrape to locate scent marks, and use urine to interpret it. In this case, the male puma is using the flehmen response to fully investigate the scent left by a female puma (Video courtesy of Max Allen)

This makes sense when one considers that a puma’s dominant sense is their sight, while their sense of smell is not nearly as well developed as that of canids or bears. The physical scrape creates an easy-to-locate visual sign that greatly enhances the chances of it being found by another puma. Once located, the puma can then investigate the signals in the urine and/or feces, determine whether the signal was left by a competitor or a potential mate, and interpret it for other information.

The large eyes of a puma, their dominant sense (Photo courtesy of Max Allen).
The large eyes of a puma, their dominant sense (Photo courtesy of Max Allen).

The information conveyed through urine and scats are currently unknown, although it is likely that pumas can detect gender, reproductive status and possibly dominance from other pumas’ urine. My observations from over watching and analyzing over 1,000 videos of scraping behavior suggest that pumas can distinguish between individuals, as well as the freshness of the scrape. For example, frequent visitation to community scrape sites is one way to determine whether a given male is the dominant one in the area, and is an important aspect of mate selection by female pumas (Allen et al. 2015). However, this is probably just a small part of what is communicated through scraping by pumas.

My research continues to examine questions about how pumas communicate, as well as many others. Keep up to date on these and other findings from our project at https://www.facebook.com/santacruzpumas.

References:
Allen, M.L., H.U. Wittmer, P. Houghtaling, J. Smith, L.M. Elbroch, and C.C. Wilmers. 2015. The role of scent marking in mate selection by female pumas (Puma concolor). PLoS One 10: e0139087.
Allen, M.L., H.U. Wittmer, and C.C. Wilmers. 2014. Puma scrape and communication behaviors: understanding functional use and variation by sex and age. Behaviour 151: 819–840.
Harmsen, B.J., R.J. Foster, S.M. Gutierrez, S.Y. Marin, and C.P. Doncaster. 2010. Scrape-marking behaviour of jaguars (Panthera onca) and pumas (Puma concolor). Journal of Mammalogy 91: 1225–1234.
Logan, K., and L. Sweanor. 2001. Desert puma: evolutionary ecology and conservation of an enduring carnivore. Island Press: 464 pages.