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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    University of Arizona Wild Cat Research and Conservation Center researches ‘wildcats’ like mountain lions

    A powerful cat roams within and between the mountain ranges across the Sky island region, scanning its surroundings, hidden among the shadows. It is rare for humans to see this secretive animal while exploring its rugged habitat.

    Mountain lions (Puma concolor), also known as pumas and cougars, blend into the terrain with their uniform tan coloration. These solitary cats prowl throughout the Americas on the hunt for deer and deer-sized animals, such as javelina and bighorn sheep. With the capability of jumping vertically up to 20 feet and leaping over 40 feet in a single hop, mountain lions use their stealth and muscular build to pounce on their prey and seize a fatal bite in a matter of seconds.

    This apex carnivore is considered “America’s big cat,” said Lisa Haynes, the UA Wild Cat Research and Conservation Center coordinator, due to their critical ecosystem function.

    The UA Wildcat Research and Conservation Center is dedicated to studying and preserving all 36 species of wildcats around the world. Their organization has researched bobcats, jaguars, fishing cats, African lions and mountain lions all over the world including Tucson, Southern Arizona, Northern Mexico, Southeast Asia and Zambia.

    Historically, mountain lions wandered the entire U.S. until the mid-1800s. Farmers despised the animals for killing their livestock, and unregulated market hunters nearly wiped out their native prey, white-tailed deer, causing a downward spiral in mountain lion populations across the Midwest and the eastern United States. After over 100 years, the cats are making a comeback in some areas of the Midwest, in correlation with increasing white-tail deer populations, according to National Geographic. Yet, in western states, the cats are under increasing pressure and persecution by state wildlife agencies, largely due to competition with human hunters for their native prey such as deer and bighorn sheep.

    Mountain lions are currently not endangered with an estimated population between 2,500 to 3,000 in the state of Arizona, according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

    These animals are “one of the most widely distributed mammal species in the world,” Haynes said. They range from the Yukon in northern Canada to almost the southern tip of South America. This distribution shows the mountain lion’s ability to adapt to a variety of habitats as long as prey animals are present.

    Dr. Ashwin Naidu, who received his doctorate degree in natural resources – wildlife conservation and management, studied under the Wild Cat Center as a graduate student, and performed a landscape genetic assessment of mountain lions in the southwestern U.S. for his dissertation. He used DNA from scat and tissue samples to analyze the population genetic structure of these cats in the Desert Southwest.

    The Puma Genetic Database was created in 2014 with the raw data obtained by Naidu and his former colleague, Dr. Robert Fitak, to serve as a reference for future genetic research on the mountain lion species. This “simple application of data sharing,” Naidu said, can be used by other scientists as a comparison to their subsequent assessments of the population structure and relatedness.

    Male mountain lions roam territories larger than 100 square miles, which is about the size of Eloy, Arizona. These turfs can reach up to 600 square miles when the animal needs to “island hop” between mountain ranges, according to Haynes. Females hold smaller home ranges within the male territories.

    Landscape fragmentation is one of the biggest threats that mountain lions face in the Southwest due to their need for large areas of land. Naidu said that interstates with high traffic volumes, barricaded canals and combined urban infrastructure could be potential barriers to gene flow. Gene flow is the exchange of genetic information between neighboring populations. This gene flow through migration can be reduced due to increasing urbanization.

    This threatens the genetic diversity of the isolated populations.

    New adult males are unable to disperse to a vacant home range and contribute new genes to the population due to man-made obstacles. The resulting isolation increases their vulnerability to diseases and genetic abnormality, such as kinked tails.

    The construction of human infrastructure shrinks the available habitat and also threatens new adult males because it can be difficult to find territory not occupied by another male.

    Some government entities, including Pima County, are combating this problem by constructing wildlife pathways to cross busy highways or water channels. The Central Arizona Project built some of the canal sections underground to allow movement of wildlife between populations. Cameras set up by the UA Wildcat Research and Conservation Center have proven the use of the corridors by the variety of desert wildlife, including coyotes, bobcats and foxes.

    If you see one…

    Mountain lions avoid humans with their innate reclusive, nocturnal behavior; however, there have been very rare encounters with animals habituated to the presence of people.

    First of all, do NOT run.

    “[Fast movement is] like a cat and a string,” Haynes said. The mountain lion will feel the innate instinct to chase the ‘prey,’ making mountain bikers and trail joggers at higher risk for attack. Keep young children close and in sight at all times.

    NEVER crouch down to grab a rock or other type of defense, but if possible, throw an item at hand, such as a water bottle.

    Back away slowly and fight back if necessary.

    Ease your mind with the fact that there has never been a fatal mountain lion attack in Arizona history, according to Haynes. These beautiful cats deserve our respect for their role in the desert ecosystem and in other habitats across the Americas.

    Consider a chance to see this elusive species a special treat as sometimes even the most dedicated scientists have not had that kind of luck in the wild.

    Follow Kaitlyn Fletcher on Twitter.

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