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New York, NY, January 18, 2022 – Pumas maintain relationships with an astounding 485 living species and play a critical role in holding ecosystems together throughout the Western Hemisphere, according to a new study entitled Pumas as ecological brokers: a review of their biotic relationships from Defenders of Wildlife and Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, published today in Mammal Review. The research documented 543 distinct interactions with other species—from elk that pumas prey upon to beetles that feed on puma prey to wolves with which pumas compete—likely representing the most diverse number of relationships recorded for any carnivore in the world.
Panthera Puma Program Director and senior author, Dr. Mark Elbroch, stated, “These findings crystallize how pumas keep ecosystems healthy and resilient, playing an invisible but essential role in linking an awesome number of plants and animals via energy and nutrient pathways. This work also underscores how human communities in the Americas benefit from living in ecosystems with pumas. Because these big cats support ecosystem health, they, in turn, support the human communities tied to these ecosystems.”
Scientists hope the study supports more strategic investment in the protection and restoration of puma habitats and populations, as well as greater public appreciation for how the species benefits human and wildlife communities across its range.
The team of scientists reviewed thousands of studies, ultimately identifying 162 published between 1950 and 2020 that focused on puma interactions and their impact on ecosystems. The study identified 203 species as puma prey, 281 species that feed upon puma prey in scavenger communities and 12 species as puma competitors. It also found pumas maintain a “fear effect” on 40 species, such as vicuña and white-tailed deer. In these cases, the presence of pumas frightens herbivores from certain landscapes, preventing them from overgrazing plant communities. Finally, studies of ecosystem services documented 7 species interactions.
Ecosystem services that pumas provide, defined as benefits supporting human economies, health and well-being, are often inconspicuous. Examples could include feeding on prey that ultimately mitigates collisions with vehicles and reduces human injuries, fatalities and associated economic costs. The recolonization of pumas in North Dakota is estimated to have reduced costs of deer-vehicle collisions by over $1 billion and scientists estimate a recolonization of the eastern United States by pumas could reduce deer-vehicle collisions by 22% over 30 years, averting 21,400 human injuries, 155 human fatalities and over $2 billion in costs.
Puma prey, or carrion in particular, support food webs of hundreds of species. Scientists have estimated conservatively that pumas contribute 1,507,348 kg of meat per day to scavenger communities across North and South America.
Researchers believe the interactions described in this paper represent just the tip of the iceberg, with pumas likely maintaining hundreds to thousands of unconfirmed relationships with other species.
Dr. Elbroch continued, “There is so little published research on pumas from the tropics and subtropics, which account for a third of the puma’s range. These biomes are among the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Just a single study from these regions might double the number of relations we have recorded for pumas.”
Though pumas range across 28 countries in the Americas, they are poorly understood and thought to be declining overall. The species is elusive and often mischaracterized as a vicious, solitary predator, leading to persecution and fueling human-puma conflict. In the United States, pumas are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, road mortality and disease; some populations are further impacted by legal hunting as well. In Latin America, the species faces the same threats, along with illegal hunting, which is generally retaliatory killing by ranchers over livestock and loss of prey.
Lead author and postdoctoral researcher with the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, Dr. Laura LaBarge, stated, “Human presence and our effects on landscapes constrain puma behavior, so it’s critical to document how pumas interact with other species in relatively intact habitats to understand their contributions to healthy, functioning ecosystems. Hopefully this knowledge also helps to demonstrate the importance of conserving pumas because so many other species depend on and benefit from their presence.”
Southeast Representative for Defenders of Wildlife, and an author on the study, Christian Hunt, stated, “Pumas not only fascinate people but nourish all types of wildlife. From beetles and birds to foxes and fish, the puma interacts with all kinds of species. Protecting this animal—and encouraging its expansion in Florida and the larger Southeast—is supported by the science. This study should invite further dialogue among government agencies and stakeholders.”
Defenders of Wildlife (Defenders) works to protect and restore imperiled wildlife and habitats across North America. Defenders’ Florida panther conservation program furthers range expansion and recovery through three main objectives: 1) preserving and restoring an interconnected network of important habitat areas, 2) reducing transportation impacts on habitat and increasing safe passage across roads and 3) enhancing acceptance for sharing the landscape by reducing conflicts with people and livestock. Defenders serves as the conservation representative on the federal Florida Panther Recovery Implementation Team and as a member of the team’s transportation sub-team.
Panthera’s Puma Program protects pumas – also known as cougars or mountain lions – in western Washington state, California’s East Bay and the region surrounding Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Program activities include conflict mitigation, education, studying puma prey selection, addressing livestock predation and studying competition with other carnivores and the impact of reintroduced wolves in different parts of the puma’s range.