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Pumas (aka mountain lions) are shy and elusive, so how do we study them? One way is to capture them and fit them with radio collars. Collars provide fine-scale movement data, and can even help distinguish whether animals are, for example, moving or resting. However, collaring comes with a cost: psychological and physical trauma to the puma. In order to be fitted with a collar, the puma must be captured, which may involve the use of dogs who chase the puma into a tree to then be tranquilized. Through these “invasive” methods, some pumas have been seriously injured or even killed and there is evidence to show that radio collars have long term adverse health effects (Manville et al. 2024). 

Luckily, pumas can be studied non-invasively and Felidae uses three methods: camera traps, as well as hair and scat analysis. Remote cameras are triggered by motion to take a photo and allow us to assess puma presence in relation to habitat variables. We can even assess external body condition (mange, malnutrition, etc) and animal behavior (Coon et al. 2019; Burton et al. 2022). Scat surveys allow us to get more of an inside look into puma health and can tell us about the genetics of the animal who left the scat, exposure to toxins, parasite information, and the cat’s most recent meal. Scat analysis requires fresh samples, and specially trained dogs who can sniff it out; making scat work a useful but resource intensive form of study.

Collecting hair from pumas is an effective and cheap way to get high quality genetic data from individuals, assess potential environmental stressors (heavy metal contamination, etc), identify timing of weaning, and obtain long term dietary information. This last piece makes hair collection unique from scat collection. Scat can tell us what an animal has recently eaten, but hair can tell us about an individual’s “dietary niche” or their diet over their entire lifetime. This is done with a technique called stable isotope analysis, which was originally used to discern the dietary habits of ancient humans. Isotopes are “versions'' of elements with the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons, meaning they have different atomic masses. Importantly, different animals and plants have different amounts of stable isotopes. When these animals or plants are consumed, their isotopic signature gets incorporated into the tissues of the consuming animal. And because these isotopes are stable (they don’t degrade overtime), researchers can use the ratio of stable isotopes in an animal's tissues (bone, teeth, or hair) to determine its dietary history.

This powerful technique will allow us to compare puma and bobcat diets across the Bay Area and identify spatial factors  that may affect diet. For example, we can ask: do pumas in urban edge communities have a more varied diet than those in less disturbed environments? How does bobcat diet change with relative puma abundance? Answering these questions will help us understand how wild cats are adapting to human presence in the Bay Area and beyond.

Stable Isotope Analysis is a widely used and understood process - the hard part is collecting hair from pumas non-invasively (with no puma-human interaction). To do this, we rely on natural cat behavior: rubbing and scent marking. Pumas, like domestic cats, rub to leave a scent on objects. This helps them mark territory and find mates. As many cat owners can unfortunately attest to, cats like rubbing and rolling in particularly stinky scents such as urine or dead animals (to camouflage their own scent for hunting purposes). We can apply these stinky scents to a hair-snagging object (known as a hair snare) to lure cats and induce rubbing behavior. Luckily for us, pumas have shown an interesting - obsession - with certain synthetic scents, like the Calvin Klein cologne: Obsession for Men. We’ll test out this scent and others in a pilot study at the Oakland Zoo with their captive pumas, to determine the best lure for pumas in the wild.

Studying pumas non-invasively is a challenge. It requires researchers to “think like pumas” and come up with creative solutions to research problems, like using a natural puma behavior to collect hair or understanding puma scent marking behaviors to collect scat. But we think the benefits of studying animals non-invasively, ensuring their safety and dignity, is well worth the challenge. Our ultimate goal is these animals' well being and conservation, so we start with what we can control: how we study them.

References 

Burton, A. C., Beirne, C., Sun, C., Granados, A., Procko, M., Chen, C., Fennell, M., Constantinou, A., Colton, C., Tjaden-McClement, K., Fisher, J. T., and Burgar, J. (2022). Behavioral “bycatch” from camera trap surveys yields insights on prey responses to human-mediated predation risk. Ecology and Evolution 12: e9108. 

Coon, C., Nichols, B.C., McDonald, Z., Stoner, D.C. (2019) Effects of land-use change and prey abundance on the body condition of an obligate carnivore at the wildland-urban interface, Landscape and Urban Planning 192: 103648

Manville A.M. II, Levitt B.B. and Lai H.C. (2024) Health and environmental effects to wildlife from radio telemetry and tracking devices—state of the science and best management practices. Frontiers in Veterinary Science 11:1283709.  

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