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Imagine a warm spring evening in a meadow along a ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Grasses and wildflowers cover the hillside and during the day raptors hover in place to swoop down on their prey. Enter a group of black-tail deer grazing up the slope on the abundant vegetation, moving as one and alert for possible predators. In this peaceful tableau, a mature male puma predator crouches low within a layer of green grasses and coyote bushes along the edge of the meadow so well camouflaged as to be nearly invisible. As the group advances slowly up the meadow, distracted by the abundant forage, one individual moves close to the edge of the meadow. Suddenly, the puma leaps into the air and pounces on the unsuspecting animal. The big cat knocks the deer to the ground and in a split-second with a powerful bite the deer’s airway closes. After a struggle, all is quiet and the mountain lion begins to feed. Other deer have long since fled into the surrounding forest. After the lion feasts on his meal, he moves the carcass to a secluded spot within the forest, covers it with leaves and debris, and returns to it for other meals.
This predator-prey scenario, repeated 1-2 times per week, allows a puma predator to survive and keeps in check the population of deer in our local mountains. The effect of apex predators (top of the food chain) also has far-reaching and positive effects on the entire ecosystem reducing the negative effect of overgrazing and strengthening the deer population by eliminating the weakest or sickest members of the group.
Pumas (Puma concolor L.) now range from Alaska to Patagonia, the greatest distance of any terrestrial mammal in the world (aside from humans). With such an extensive range, these cats have more names than any other mammal. For example, in North America these include: pumas, mountain lions, cougars, or catamounts. Throughout Central and South America the list grows to more than 40 names. Currently, they remain the only apex predator in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a range that they may have known for thousands of years. In the relatively recent past, they occupied these mountains with brown bears, black bears, wolves, and Native Americans. More distant in time, they could have shared the landscape with saber-tooth cats, dire wolves and other predators that are now extinct.
Stealthy in all aspects of their lifestyle, they may have survived to this day by hiding “in plain sight,” adapting to changing conditions over the millennia. Today, they must be flexible enough to deal with the proximity of human development and a busy network of hiking and mountain bike trails covering our local mountains. Sometimes called ‘ghost’ or ‘shadow cats,’ these large predators possess “mind-blowing camouflage” according to Zara McDonald, president of the Felidae Conservation Fund. Although rarely seen by human visitors within their territory, mountain lions must certainly observe us on a regular basis. They seem to avoid encounters with humans. “Anytime a puma has an unexpected encounter with humans,” said Patty Ten Boom-Byrnes, a volunteer for the Felidae Conservation Fund, “It’s a mistake for them.” In general, human-puma interactions don’t go well for the puma.
Pumas support their survival with a remarkable collection of adaptations: strong back legs that allow them to leap onto prey from a great distance (40 feet+), superb daylight and night vision, formidable and retractable claws for grabbing prey, long stabbing canine teeth, strong jaws, a wide gape, teeth designed for cutting flesh, a rough tongue for rasping meat from their prey, territoriality, and opportunistic feeding habits. To ensure their survival in the local mountains, pumas establish and defend territories covering about 90 square miles for males and 35-40 square miles for females (often overlapping with male territories). According to Paul Houghtaling, puma project manager at UC Santa Cruz, local male pumas can reach a weight of about 130 lbs. and a length of 6-8 feet (including the long curved tail). In contrast, females tend to be smaller and lighter at up 80 lbs. Weights and lengths less than these are very common in our local mountains, perhaps a function of available prey. Obeying the Bergeman Rule, pumas tend to be smallest near the equator and largest and heavier closer to the poles.
Young pumas are raised by their mothers in a protected part of the forest but without a true natal den. Rather, the mother prepares a site where kittens can blend into the leaf litter of the forest floor. After being weaned at about 6 months, the juvenile cats begin to feed on deer meat. Until the age of 18 months, juvenile pumas stay with their mother learning all the skills needed to hunt as solitary animals. After the apprenticeship ends, the young males venture into an unprotected world to establish their own territory, where dominant males have already staked a claim. Juvenile females often remain longer with the mothers. Field studies indicate that these young males seek the boundaries between dominant male territories to secure as their own. Since these young males often struggle to survive, high mortality results. As a result, the local puma population may have only 1 male for every 3 females. When a dominant male dies, a new dominant male takes over his territory, mates with the female to ensure the future of his own genetic line.
Steve Maskel is a retired high school science teacher and nature writer. A native Californian, he has a deep appreciation for the region’s natural history. Through his writing he hopes to help share the wonders of our natural world.
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 76,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.