Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series about a Panthera paper out today in Science Advances providing the first evidence of complex social strategies in any solitary carnivore—and showing that pumas in particular are more social than previously thought. Part Two will chronicle how territorial males structure food-sharing among puma “networks”—and the implications this startling discovery may have for conservation work. A version of this post also appeared in National Geographic's Cat Watch blog.
Pumas—stealthy solo predators all muscle and grace—are known for going it alone, venerated by admirers of pioneers, adventurers, and entrepreneurs. But are these big cats as solitary as we once thought?
New research by Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project just published in the prestigious journal Science Advances suggests otherwise—that pumas might regularly, predictably, and even strategically engage in social interactions with their peers. Perhaps they should be venerated for their cooperative behaviors instead.
Consider F51 and F61, two adult female pumas followed by Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project, both of whom have been central to our work in recent years as well as co-stars in the recent BBC film Big Cats in High Places and NatGeo Wild film Cougars Undercover.
On four separate occasions, F51 killed large prey and allowed F61—and her two kittens—to share the carcass. At the time, F51 also had kittens of an almost identical age. On six different occasions during the same time period, F61 killed large prey and, in turn, allowed F51 and her kittens to feed from her kills. Typically, the females took turns feeding at the carcasses, while the other lay nearby. Their kittens, however, fed with either mother.
Traditionally, ecologists are quick to dismiss these sorts of associations as unusual, or explained by simple logic. Pumas and other solitary carnivores are supposed to avoid each other, and interact infrequently to mate or settle territorial disputes (see a previous blog on this topic). “They must be sisters,” I was told again and again when I shared the news of F51 and 61 with friends and peers.
Consequently, I made social behaviors a priority in our research. Between 2012 and 2015, we documented an astonishing 118 interactions among adult pumas. That was surprising in itself. But perhaps more surprising was that 60% of these interactions occurred over entrees served up by one of the big cats—almost always a carcass of a large animal killed by one of the pumas in the interaction.
This unanticipated discovery also provided us a unique opportunity: We could assign “direction” to puma interactions at kill sites, determining which cat made the kill and allowed another to receive the benefits of social tolerance (sharing a resource without fighting) and free food. Direction allowed us to test for complex social strategies, like reciprocity, which until now has only been documented in social species like chimpanzees and humans.
Any form of cooperation tends to come at a cost to the individual sharing or supporting another. This cost, however, can be neutralized if that individual is repaid through reciprocal behaviors in the future. Even better, individuals that engage in reciprocity typically come out ahead as compared to individuals that do not engage in cooperative behaviors at all—reciprocity is a smart social strategy. Many researchers, however, believe that animals lack the cognitive capacity for recalling experiences and the strategic thinking required to exhibit reciprocity; but, there is increasing evidence that many animals can and do exhibit reciprocity.
In our new research, we determined the predominant pattern characterizing puma tolerance and food-sharing at puma kills. We were shocked to realize that the strongest pattern was direct reciprocity. If one puma allowed a second to feed from its kill, the second was 7.7 times more likely to allow the first to feed from one of their own kills down the line.
This means that everything we think we know about pumas—that they are solitary killing machines that only come together to mate or fight—is wrong. Instead, our analysis describes a secretive species with a complex social system built on reciprocal tolerance and food-sharing.