- Mountain lions or pumas leave behind the carcasses of their prey, which break down to enhance soil quality and support plant growth, attracting more prey to these nutrient-rich areas in a “garden to hunt” cycle.
- Scientists identified 65 puma kill sites by tracking GPS-collared pumas in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of the western United States and found that kills were limited to just 4% of the environment.
- The presence of prey carcasses altered both the total nitrogen and δ15N of soils and plants in the area, suggesting that plants were absorbing substantial amounts of nitrogen from the carcasses.
- The study supports the idea that large carnivores like pumas influence the way ecosystems work by spreading nutrients around and thus play key roles in keeping ecosystems healthy.
Big cats are expert hunters, but some may also be adept gardeners, according to a recent study published in Springer Nature.
After killing and eating, pumas (Puma concolor) leave the carcasses of their prey behind, which break down to release vital elements like nitrogen and carbon into the soil. These enhance the soil’s quality and support plant growth, attracting other animals, such as elk and deer, to these nutrient-rich areas, creating a “garden to hunt” cycle.
Pumas, also known as mountain lions, are strategic hunters and target locations where prey is easily available. Hunting in these areas creates additional nutrient-rich zones that aid in capturing more prey in the future.
To investigate this cycle scientists from Washington State University and the non-profit Panthera identified 65 puma kill sites by tracking GPS-collared pumas in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of the western United States.
Researchers discovered that kills were limited to just a fraction of the environment (4%) and that soil and plant samples in these ‘prey garden’ kill sites had more nutrients.
The study measured nutrients in soils and plants at 172 ungulate carcasses killed by pumas. They found that the presence of carcasses altered both the total nitrogen and δ15N (an isotope often used as a tracer of nutrient flow between different organisms and across food webs) of soils and plants in the area, suggesting that plants were absorbing substantial amounts of nitrogen from the carcasses.
“Each study and glimpse into the secret lives of pumas reveals that their behaviors and contributions to nature are far more complex than imagined,” study co-author and director of Panthera’s puma program Mark Elbroch said. “Pumas contribute over a million kg of meat to ecosystems every day, improving the quality of soil and plant life, feeding hundreds of species, and supporting the health of their ecosystems and our planet’s overall web of life.”
In fact, a group of just twelve mountain lions produced more than 100,000 kilograms (220,462 pounds) of dead animal weight every year, roughly the size of the world’s biggest animal, the blue whale. They also estimated that each Puma made about 482 nutrient-rich spots in their lifetime, but these spots didn’t last forever.
The study supports the idea that large carnivores like mountain lions influence how ecosystems work by spreading nutrients. When these carnivores leave behind the bodies of their prey to decompose, it affects not only the diversity and structure of plant communities but also the variety and location of small creatures like insects and worms and the animals that eat them.
The authors say this research helps us understand how complex ecosystems work and can help conservationists prioritize protecting animals that play key roles in keeping ecosystems healthy. By prioritizing these “strongly interacting species,” conservation efforts can better ensure ecosystems’ long-term health and stability.
“To those who care for the well-being of wildlife and the wild habitats sustaining all living beings,” Elbroch said, “these findings yet again demonstrate the value and need to conserve the Americas’ pumas.”
Peziol, M., Elbroch, L. M., Shipley, L. A., Evans, R. D., & Thornton, D. H. (2023). Large carnivore foraging contributes to heterogeneity in nutrient cycling. Landscape Ecology, 1-13. Doi: 10.1007/s10980-023-01630-0
Banner image of a Puma concolor with its prey courtesy of Neal Wight/ Panthera.
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