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Seasonal foraging ecology of non-migratory cougars in a system with migrating prey.

Research paper by L Mark LM Elbroch, Patrick E PE Lendrum, Jesse J Newby, Howard H Quigley, Derek D Craighead

Indexed on: 19 Dec '13Published on: 19 Dec '13Published in: PloS one



Abstract

We tested for seasonal differences in cougar (Puma concolor) foraging behaviors in the Southern Yellowstone Ecosystem, a multi-prey system in which ungulate prey migrate, and cougars do not. We recorded 411 winter prey and 239 summer prey killed by 28 female and 10 male cougars, and an additional 37 prey items by unmarked cougars. Deer composed 42.4% of summer cougar diets but only 7.2% of winter diets. Males and females, however, selected different proportions of different prey; male cougars selected more elk (Cervus elaphus) and moose (Alces alces) than females, while females killed greater proportions of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) and small prey than males. Kill rates did not vary by season or between males and females. In winter, cougars were more likely to kill prey on the landscape as: 1) elevation decreased, 2) distance to edge habitat decreased, 3) distance to large bodies of water decreased, and 4) steepness increased, whereas in summer, cougars were more likely to kill in areas as: 1) elevation decreased, 2) distance to edge habitat decreased, and 3) distance from large bodies of water increased. Our work highlighted that seasonal prey selection exhibited by stationary carnivores in systems with migratory prey is not only driven by changing prey vulnerability, but also by changing prey abundances. Elk and deer migrations may also be sustaining stationary cougar populations and creating apparent competition scenarios that result in higher predation rates on migratory bighorn sheep in winter and pronghorn in summer. Nevertheless, cougar predation on rare ungulates also appeared to be influenced by individual prey selection.