Male Mountain Lions Govern Complex Social Networks, Study Reports

Oct 17, 2017

A new study of mountain lions shows they’re much more social than previously thought, with networks of felines sharing resources in territories overseen by a dominant male.

Panthera’s Puma Project biologist Mark Elbroch is a lead author of the article, published last week in the journal Science Advances. The study uses GPS technology and motion-sensor cameras to look at cougars in western Wyoming. 

Elbroch said, more studies now show that species such as meercats and chimpanzees exhibit reciprocity, or food sharing, in hopes of receiving some in the future. But this is the first study to show reciprocity in a solitary animal. He said while mountain lions aren’t as social as African lions, they do live in networks.

“Aggression was low,” he said, describing the footage they collected. “You know, they come together, they have a very short, intense sort of episode of posturing and hissing and all that kind of stuff. And then they’ll go into this peaceful co-feeding in which they’re either at opposite sides of the carcass feeding together or they take turns.”

Elbroch said the common assumption is that male mountain lions are solitary and aggressive, but his footage contradicts that.

“[Males mountain lions] are like politicians,” said Elbroch. “They’re governors of fiefdoms within which mountain lions interact frequently.”

Crossing borders, he said, occurs less frequently but does happen.

Elbroch said the study now raises the question of what happens when those dominant males are hunted or killed. He said more research needs to be done but it’s possible that those complex social structures would be disturbed, and that males could even commit infanticide, killing the kittens of other males after they are gone.