Editor’s Note: Anna Kusler is a member of Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project team and a graduate researcher at Pace University in the Dyson College of Arts and Sciences.
The internet and our social media news feeds are filled with photos of our beloved feline companions sleeping in the oddest of locations: empty boxes in our closets, the top of the refrigerator, or hidden under clothes in the hamper.
Have you ever wondered if big cats sleep in similarly weird places? Despite the fact that scientists know a lot about the relationships between predators and their prey, we know surprisingly little about the sleeping habits of large predators, especially cryptic carnivores like pumas.
But why would bed sites even matter? Even though most of us probably think of pumas as top predators with little to fear, that’s not always the case. In North America, much larger grizzly and black bears steal their hard-earned kills. Wolves, as pack animals, steal their kills AND kill them and their kittens. So pumas need to find safe places (scientifically referred to as “refugia”) where it is difficult or unlikely that other predators can disturb or hurt them.
Over the course of four years (from 2012-2016), our research team visited 599 puma bed sites with the help of satellite GPS collars and documented the characteristics of the places these elusive predators slept. We shimmied under fallen trees and balanced along craggy cliff bands in search of their sign.
If we were lucky, we would find the soft depression in the needles, dirt, or snow that marked where their body had laid. If we were even luckier, we would find a few soft, springy hairs—just the tiniest of traces to betray their ghost-like presence on the landscape.
We often found puma beds tucked underneath the low-lying boughs of a tree, or against the rugged face of an inaccessible cliff. They seem to prefer steep, rugged terrain, like cliff bands and boulder fields. The bone structure in pumas’ feet allows them to grip rocks and logs much more easily than can wolves and bears, allowing pumas a distinct escape advantage should a competitor try to sneak up on them during a cat nap.
Similarly, you’ll almost never find a puma sleeping out in an open meadow; these cryptic cats typically chose to sleep within or nearby the safety of the forest, where there are plenty of trees to climb in case of an emergency.
We also found that warmth (thermoregulation) was very influential in bed site selection, especially in the winter. So, like your housecat loves to sleep in the sunny warmth of a windowsill, pumas like to maximize their exposure to the sun’s rays. That meant many bed sites were on south-facing slopes, where the warmth from the sun is strongest.
Why does such research matter to pumas? When many people think about conserving or managing large predators like pumas, they typically focus on their food requirements (i.e. the availability of prey species like deer). Though this is definitely an important consideration, pumas must constantly manage a trade-off between finding food and staying safe. Because the best hunting habitats are not necessarily the safest places to sleep, a puma must find a home range that can provide both types of environment.
We hope that this new research will help scientists, managers, and conservationists to broaden their perspective when considering the kinds of habitats and landscapes pumas may need in order to make the best-possible conservation and management decisions.
The next time you see your housecat sleeping in an empty box on the top shelf of your closet, maybe you can imagine a puma doing something similar: silent and hidden, napping under the boughs of a tree or the crags of a cliff, perched high above the world. Perhaps our domestic companions and their bigger, distant relatives aren’t so different after all.