Stinky dead meat. Oddly, I’ve come to love the stench of it, even though it sometimes turns my stomach. It’s become a badge of honor and a symbol of what I do, hiking long days in search of prey killed by pumas.
Sometimes the stink helps me locate the carcass, or the sounds of flies hovering over the carcass when I’m close. If I’m really lucky, birds take flight or mammals run, giving away the location of a carcass stashed away by a mountain lion. Because it turns out that I’m not the only one looking for puma kills.
We just published our latest research in the international science journal Biological Conservation, and it highlights the incredible diversity of wildlife that feed upon puma kills. In fact, the number of animal species that we recorded feeding at puma kills in Wyoming was higher than any other scavenger study to date from around the world. This means pumas are especially important to ecosystems.
In recent years, there has been an abundance of research celebrating the importance of carrion (dead meat) in promoting ecosystem health and local biodiversity. If you think of food webs as a simplification of a forest ecosystem, you can quickly assess the forest’s health and resilience (its ability to bounce back after a disaster, such as a disease outbreak), by counting the number of linkages in the food web.
We know, for example, that mountain lions are linked to elk and deer because they eat them. What’s exciting is that deer and elk killed by mountain lions also become linked to black-capped chickadees, red squirrels, and numerous other species that feed upon their carcasses. Carrion, in short, increases the number of linkages in food webs considerably.
Unfortunately, large carnivores that create large carcasses are in sharp decline around the world. And not all carnivores are the same, either. Cheetahs and pumas provide more carrion to their ecological communities than other apex predators. Pumas, for example, contribute roughly 3,323,133 pounds (1,507,348 kilograms) of meat to other animals every day across their range in North and South America —that’s half a million pounds more meat than sold by McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S. each day! That’s a lot of meat.
Building upon this knowledge, we set out to learn what animals were taking advantage of puma kills and their free buffets to determine how many food web “linkages” (number of different animals) were supported by pumas in northwest Wyoming.
We set motion-triggered video cameras at 242 active mountain lion kills monitored as part of Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project, and recorded an impressive 39 species of birds and mammals (plus domestic dogs, but we didn’t count them) feeding upon carcasses, some of them even while the puma was sleeping nearby. Red foxes and black-billed magpies were by far the most common scavengers, but we also glimpsed weasels, flying squirrels, chickadees, gray jays, and deer mice dining. In fact, 15% of all local birds and mammals in the Grand Teton National Park area fed at puma kills we monitored!
This is just one reason pumas are so vital to healthy ecosystems. They provide carrion that in turn is spread across communities by an unbelievable number of birds and mammal scavengers. In fact, pumas are the most widely distributed terrestrial mammal in the western hemisphere. Our new research shows that just like McDonald’s, pumas provide fast food to the masses across their vast range in North and South America.