With an expansive range that stretches from the Canadian Yukon to the southern Andes of South America, the puma’s natural habitat range covers more land than any other large mammal in the Western Hemisphere. Considered a very successful species, the puma inhabits a wide range of habitats, from sea level to 4,000 meter mountains, to tropical and temperate forests, deserts and savannas. It certainly comes as no surprise then, that the puma, the second largest cat in the Western Hemisphere, is known locally by many different names, including mountain lion, panther, catamount, and cougar.
The population of an ecosystem’s top predators is an indicator of its overall health, and so Conservacion Patagonica’s Wildlife Recovery Team has spent several years monitoring and studying the park’s puma population in relation to its native prey, the domestic livestock of neighboring ranches, and the effects the puma population has on the endangered huemul deer. This research is of particular importance given the limited knowledge of the species in Patagonia. For over a century pumas were intensively hunted, but today they are protected by law. The puma population in Patagonia Park has been recovering since 2004, when Conservacion Patagonica removed the nearly 30,000 head of sheep that inhabited the valley. The current population within the park has reached the maximum possible density, due to the amount of food available within the park.
By studying their movement via radio and GPS collars, the team has recovered information about their movements, distances travelled, individual territories, behavior (determining sleeping and resting spots) and feeding habits (prey carcasses). Winter is the best time to track and collar pumas, as the team can more easily track the cat’s paw prints in snow. Covering large swaths of land on horseback, and with the help of hounds, the team has captured and collared 25 pumas.
Though slender and extremely agile, much like domesticated cats, pumas can grow to approximately the size of an adult human. Adult male pumas typically grow to be around 2.4m (7.9ft) in length from nose to tail with females averaging 2.05m (6.7ft). The long tail represents more than 1/3 of the total length. The trail serves to counter-balance the puma’s movements as they pursue prey and travel across the landscape. Fully-grown males can weigh anywhere between 53-100kg (115-220lbs) while females weigh anywhere from 29-64kg (64-141lbs) once they reach adulthood. Pumas are equipped with large, powerful hind legs that allow them to jump as high as 5.5m (18ft) vertically and leap forward about 12m (40ft) horizontally. Their large, strong paws are well designed to grasp surfaces, allowing them to easily scale rocky mountainsides and maneuverer through several types of terrain, as well as travel through deep snow by using their snow-shoe like paws.
Pumas, like other big cats, are mostly solitary and territorial in nature. Interaction between adult pumas is rare and is generally limited almost exclusively to mating, after which females become the sole caretakers of offspring. Female pumas will reproduce once every two to three years with a litter size ranging anywhere from one to six kittens. Newborn pumas are blind and sport spots on their coats, which they will loose once they reach adulthood. Kittens rely entirely on their mothers for the first six months and only begin to practice their hunting skills after the half-year mark, killing mostly small mammals like hares and rodents.
Pumas are a generalist species, meaning they are able to adapt to and thrive in a wide range of environments. A puma’s diet can consist of an equally wide range of animals, including deer, hares, and sometimes small livestock and foals. Studies conducted by Conservacion Patagonica’s Wildlife Recovery Team have shown that 90% of the park’s pumas diet consists of guanacos and hare, with rare livestock kills.
The CP Livestock Guardian Dogs Program, started in 2008, has been an effective model for mitigating livestock-predator conflict between local ranchers and the puma population. Through this program, CP has shown that, by changing management practices, it is possible to breed livestock surrounded by native predators, without the need to persecute them. Similar programs have been successfully implemented in other parts of the world, including the Australian outback and the Namibian grasslands.
Conservacion Patagonica’s emphasis on park creation has been misunderstood as “protection for puma,” which naturally has been the subject of local controversy. After many years of field work and data collection on the movements and food habits of the park’s puma, we now know that the diet of the park’s puma consists mostly of guanaco and European hare, both of which are very abundant inside the park. Thankfully the number of huemul deer predated by pumas annual has been very low. A much larger threat to the huemul is attacks by local domestic dogs. The percentage of puma preying on livestock is a very small; a pivotal statistic we hope will decrease the number of puma that are persecuted in the name of livestock protection.
Behaviorally, if a puma kills a large prey such as a guanaco, it tends to stay in the surrounding area between 2-7 days to feed on the carcass. However, scavengers such as the Andean condor, caracara, or culpeo foxes will also linger to take advantage of the free meal.
Puma territories are large, and range from 7,000-31,000 hectares (19,000-78,000 acres). Because male pumas can be very territorial, the overlap amongst male territories tends to be quite small. Females however, are much more tolerant and can share portions of their territory with other females, as well as live inside a dominant male territory.
In a single day, a puma can easily travel an average of 8-10km, with exceptions of puma moving in a straight path for 60km. Puma movements and dispersion occur in all directions in a region, as their territories can be as large as 500-800km (310-500 miles). Of course, as new pumas migrate to the park from other areas, young puma will disperse in search of new territories outside the park boundaries, as well as older males who have been displaced by stronger, dominant males. While in search of new territories, these puma do occasionally kill livestock. This increases the likelihood that these particular pumas will be persecuted, an unfortunately common occurrence in Patagonia.
Pumas evoke strong emotions throughout its enormous range of habitat—ranging from awe and wonder to anger and hatred. It is our hope that with further study of this species, collaboration with conservationists, managers, and scientists around the world, and continued dialogue with wildlife authorities, local ranchers, and farmers, puma can once again maintain a healthy population within Patagonia Park and regulate the park’s native herbivore population. Patagonian pumas are one of the park’s most iconic and appreciated wildlife species, though few visitors are lucky enough to catch sight of one in the Patagonia landscape.