In a way,
are the social butterflies of the animal kingdom, a new study finds. The wild cats maintain relationships with 485 species, playing a key role in the ecosystems of the Western Hemisphere.
) are also known as cougars,
, and Florida panthers. They’re one of the largest carnivores in the Americas with a massive range from the Canadian Yukon to the southern Andes.
Pumas are listed as "least concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) but their population trend is decreasing.
“Large predators like pumas can play outsized roles in the ecosystems they inhabit but no one before us has attempted to systematically evaluate the evidence for pumas’ various ecological roles,” lead author Laura LaBarge, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, tells Treehugger.
“Doing this kind of review is helpful for designing effective conservation plans and convincing managers as well as the public, that pumas should be allowed to persist or even recolonize areas of their former range.”
For their study, researchers reviewed scientific literature on pumas across the Western Hemisphere and analyzed how they interacted with other species. They reviewed thousands of studies between 1950 and 2020 and found 162 published articles that focused on pumas and their effect on the ecosystem.
“From each study we recorded species that puma interact with and the nature of those interactions, and so we were able to build up a picture of their most important ecosystem effects,” LaBarge says.
They documented 543 interactions between pumas and other living organisms and found interactions with 485 distinct species.
The relationships were quite varied, including the wolves pumas compete with for prey, the elks that pumas prey upon, and birds that scavenge on leftover puma kills.
The results were published in the journal Mammal Review.
Connections and Meetings
Pumas interact with so many species because they are
, senior study author Mark Elbroch, puma program director for
, the global wild cat conservation organization, tells Treehugger.
Those are predators at the top of the food chain, but they aren’t always the very top carnivore, so it changes how they interact with other predators.
“They also have a massive range (southern Alaska to southernmost South America), and inhabit diverse ecosystems, all of which increases the potential species with which they might interact,” Elbroch says.
And this leads to a broad array of connections and meetings.
“Pumas directly interact with their prey of course, but they also have numerous indirect effects on other organisms because as top predators, pumas can scare their prey, which can prevent herbivores like deer from overgrazing plant communities,” LaBarge explains.
“Another way in which they interact with so many other species is by killing prey that are even larger than themselves—this means that pumas provide a disproportionate amount of carrion to the environment, which is an incredibly important energy source for so many different organisms. Scavengers like Andean condors, smaller carnivores, and an enormous number of invertebrates like beetles all rely on feeding from puma kills.”
Researchers believe this is the first study that tries to count the number of interactions a predator has with other species, so they don’t know how these results compare to other animals and their relationships.
Pumas and the Ecosystem
These interactions highlight what an important role pumas play in keeping the ecosystem healthy.
“In many places, pumas appear to be key for maintaining intact
and are critical for helping to maintain biodiversity because so many other species depend on them,” LaBarge says. “Human communities ultimately depend on healthy ecosystems as well and we see that pumas can benefit people in a myriad of ways from reducing deer-vehicle collision risk to mitigating disease spread in ecosystems.”
The results also offer evidence that pumas should be a priority when creating conservation strategies, Elbroch says.
“These findings highlight the importance of pumas in supporting healthy human-wildlife communities, and the strategic benefits of protecting mountain lions as a tool to protect broader biodiversity. This work can also be used to increase tolerance for the species in communities that need to understand why pumas are important,” he says.
“For me, when I take a moment to ponder all the ways pumas are connected to other flora and fauna, it just takes my breath away—pumas are amazing, and the interconnectedness of life is astounding.”
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AUTHOR: MARY JO DILONARDO & FACT CHECKED BY: KATHERINE MARTINKO
BIO: MARY JO DILONARDO - UNIVERSITY OF CINCINNATI - WORKED IN PRINT, ONLINE, & BROADCAST JOURNALISM FOR 25 YEARS & COVERS NATURE, HEALTH, SCIENCE, & ANIMALS & FACT CHECKER: KATHERINE MARTINKO - UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO - EXPERT IN SUSTAINABLE LIVING. SHE HOLDS A DEGREE IN ENGLISH LITERATURE & HISTORY FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO.