Small cats

Cougars are more social than previously assumed

The wild cats, with the exception of the lions and the associations of male cheetahs, are usually regarded as solitary animals, who avoid each other as far as possible and only have closer contact with each other during the mating season and when raising young cats. Something that is also mentioned again and again when it comes to the question of whether our domestic cat is a solitary carnivore or not. A new study, published in the Journal Science Advances, shows that the assumptions regarding the cat as a strict solitary animal in the wild, which have been valid for more than 60 years, now appear in a new light.

It is the first scientific work to quantify the complex, enduring and friendly interactions between these wild cats, revealing a very diverse society that is far more tolerant and socially supportive than previously thought. Through the pictures and videos created in the course of the study, it became evident that cougars used the same social strategies as more sociable animals, albeit over longer periods of time than those living in packs.

Researchers used GPS technology and cameras with motion detectors to film the animals’ behaviour in the Yellowstone ecosystem, parts of Grand Teton National Park, the National Elk Refuge and Brider-Teton National Forest. The focus was on food resources, since the pumas interacted most with each other there and because the researchers were able to differentiate between “donors” and “recipients” and to investigate, for example, whether the behaviour was based on reciprocity.

Cougars share their food with other cougars

The study showed that cougars shared their food, which cannot be explained by ecological and biological factors alone.

It turned out that:

  • each puma was part of a network where individuals shared their food.
  • each puma shared at least once its food with another puma from the study and also often shared the food with other pumas.
  • the choice of with whom to share the food, was not accidental or restricted to family members. Instead, the pumas seemed to remember who had already shared food with them in the past, and it was 7.7 times more likely that they shared food with them. Something that has only been documented in the case of companionable animals so far.[1]
  • male pumas received more meat than female pumas and probably benefited differently from the social interactions. The males got meat, the females probably had it easier to find a mating partner.
  • territorial tomcats dominated their territory and gave a structure to how all cougars in the habitat interacted with each other. Thus, all cougars in the male’s territory usually formed a single network in which it was more likely that the food was shared among each other. Social interactions outside the district boundaries were significantly less frequent. If this male was lost, the entire social network was disturbed.

Can the behaviour of the cougars be transferred to other species?

Cougars, like several other wildcat species, have a potential for complex social strategies that is greater than one would expect from a solitary carnivore. One of the reasons for this is that they hunt animals that are much larger than themselves and the other reason is that they live in relatively stable territories for a relatively long time. This opens up opportunities for repeated interactions with neighbors over time, which is essential to develop such complex social strategies.

The cougars in the investigated area were mainly feeding on elk, a large prey for a single cougar. Depending on the habitat, cougars also feed on other (smaller) prey animals, which cannot be easily shared. The question is whether these cougars behave in the same way as other species, such as leopards. That’s something the researchers still have to find out.

What can be deduced from the study is that even animals that have always been regarded as solitary animals can interact in a far more social way than previously assumed. At least if the conditions are right. That is then again something, which can be transferred somewhere also to our domestic cats.

Reference: Adaptive social strategies in a solitary carnivore By L. Mark Elbroch, Michael Levy, Mark Lubell, Howard Quigley, Anthony Caragiulo, Science Avances 2017;3: e1701218

[1] In view of the fact that many researchers continue to believe that animals lack the cognitive abilities to remember past experiences and doubt that animals are capable of strategic thinking this is quite interesting.

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Also published on Medium.

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