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Courtship in pumas: videos reveal cryptic behaviors

Max Allen – Santa Cruz Puma Project

A male puma looking back (Photograph courtesy of Max Allen)
A male puma looking back (Photograph courtesy of Max Allen)

Pumas are cryptic carnivores that are among the most difficult animals to observe in the wild. Studying these cryptic animals is often challenging, and it is especially hard to study courtship between males and females. One aspect of my research revolves around using motion-triggered cameras to understand how carnivores, including pumas, communicate. As such, I have made some hard-won observations of puma courtship and mating.

From my observations, most of the initial courtship interactions involve communication that is centered around scent marking areas used by the carnivore community (Allen et al. 2014, Allen et al. 2015). I use the term “community scrapes” for these areas, while Logan and Sweanor (2001) used the term “shared scrapes.” Male pumas are the most frequent visitors to these areas (73% of all visits; Allen et al. 2014), and during their visits they typically exhibit scraping behavior.

A male puma scraping at a community scrape (Video by Max Allen)

During scraping behavior pumas scrape the ground with their hind paws to create a mound of duff, and then urinate or defecate on the mound of material. This creates a visual cue (the physical scrape) combined with a scent mark (the urine or feces) (Allen et al. 2014). Male pumas create these scrapes to advertise their residency status, and competitors and potential mates investigate these signals and cues (Allen et al. 2014).

A female’s early visit to a community scrape, where she investigates but does not scent mark (Video by Max Allen)

Female pumas will stop by community scrapes intermittently to investigate scents left by the resident males, but their involvement at community scrape sites really begins when they are ready to breed. Thus begins a cycle of visitation by a given female that lasts from a few days to up to 2 months. Initially the female pumas will visit a community scrape and investigate the recent scent left by males. Later in the cycle females begin either creating scrapes of their own, or urinating on top of the scrapes made by male pumas.

A female puma’s later visit to a community scrape, where she sprays urine on top of a male scrape (Video by Max Allen)

Scent marking to advertise their presence is often enough to gain the attention of the resident male puma. However, pumas are spatially dispersed, and although community scrapes can help pumas locate each other, sometimes this doesn’t work. In these cases, females begin advertising in earnest through caterwauling. Caterwauling is a loud, reverberant call that is surprisingly high-pitched, and not deep like the roar of an African lion. Caterwauling nevertheless travels distances of up to 5 miles (Logan and Sweanor 2001), and alerts any nearby males to the presence of the female.

A female puma caterwauling to attract a mate (Video by Max Allen)

Once the pumas meet the courtship begins. This is an area of their lives that is especially secretive, and we know little about it. From my observations, the pair generally stay together for 1 to 3 days, although I have documented courtships that last up to 5 days. During this time they travel across the landscape together, often taking circuitous routes that continue to return to the vicinity of the community scrape where they initially met.

A male and female puma traveling during courtship (Video by Max Allen)

On numerous occasions I have found evidence of male pumas killing deer in order to feed the female, although as you can see in the following video, the feeding during courtship isn’t necessarily as loving as you might expect.

A male and female puma feeding together during courtship (Video by Max Allen)

Aside from those observations, we know little. African lions are renowned for mating bouts that include up to 300 couplings a day. Pumas may or may not do the same, but my limited observations do not give enough information to understand these types of intricacies. During mating females appear to rebuff many of the advances made by the male. Females also appear to initiate about half of the couplings. My hope is to gather more information in the future to further illuminate these behaviors.

After the courtship period ends, the male and female part ways. The male’s part is done, as he plays no role in raising kittens. Instead, he returns to patrolling his territory and looking for other mates. The female will be pregnant for 3 months, and will prepare for denning shortly before giving birth.

GPS data showing den, note the cluster of activity with movements repeatedly leaving and returning (Figure courtesy of Santa Cruz Puma Project)
GPS data showing den, note the cluster of activity with movements repeatedly leaving and returning (Figure courtesy of Santa Cruz Puma Project)

We use videos of courting pumas to estimate birthing dates and we then look at GPS data from around these dates to look for the onset of denning behavior. The female will localize in an area over a periods of days. Initially, GPS data for a den looks much like a kill site, but varies in two important ways. 1) a female will remain at a den site for much longer than the 2-5 days pumas typically stay on a deer kill, and 2) the female makes repeated travels away from the den to hunt, but will continue to return to the den.

 

A group of young kittens nursing at a nursery (Video courtesy of Santa Cruz Puma Project)

 

When a female stays in one spot for over a week we prepare to investigate the area for kittens. We perform our initial visits to a nursery when the kittens are two weeks old to confirm kittens were born and count the number of kittens in the litter. We then return when the kittens are four weeks old to place collars on the kittens. The collars allow us to monitor their survival and study how the impacts of urbanization affect kitten survival and ecology.

Puma kitten 64m growling while the author and Ph.D. student Anna Nisi fit him with an expandable collar to monitor his survival (Photo courtesy of Mike Bolte)
Puma kitten 64m growling while the author and Ph.D. student Anna Nisi fit him with an expandable collar to monitor his survival (Photograph courtesy of Mike Bolte)

Puma nurseries and kitten survival are ongoing areas of my research with the Santa Cruz Puma Project. Keep up to date with my ongoing efforts to understand the behavior and ecology of these elusive felids at facebook.com/thewildlives.

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.

Logan, K., and L. Sweanor. 2001. Desert puma: evolutionary ecology and conservation of an enduring carnivore. Island Press: Covelo, CA.