Sci­en­tists un­lock mys­ter­ies of the cougar diet

Study of scat finds reclu­sive cat prefers to dine on sea lions, seals in­stead of just deer

Vancouver Sun - - FRONT PAGE - BY LARRY PYNN

When re­searchers in Pa­cific Rim Na­tional Park Re­serve started col­lect­ing cougar scat sam­ples, they ex­pected the anal­y­sis to show a diet pri­mar­ily of black- tailed deer.

But they were taken aback to learn that deer com­prised only a quar­ter of the cougars’ diet in the park, and that an un­likely smat­ter­ing of other an­i­mals — notably har­bour seals and even sea lions — com­prised the re­main­der.

“What’s sur­pris­ing to me is that deer is not the pri­mary prey species,” Danielle Thompson, park re­source man­age­ment spe­cial­ist, said in an in­ter­view. “It’s a sec­ondary prey item and rac­coons are ac­tu­ally No. 1.”

The re­search is con­sid­ered the first sci­en­tific doc­u­men­ta­tion of cougars ex­ploit­ing ma­rine mam­mals in North Amer­ica.

“This is re­ally in­ter­est­ing; imag­ine a cougar stalk­ing its way across a bar­na­cle-in­fested reef,” re­sponded Chris Da­ri­mont, a Vic­to­ria- based re­searcher who has ex­ten­sively stud­ied how wolves on the B. C. coast ex­ploit ma­rine life, in­clud­ing spawn­ing salmon.

“I know of no other ac­count of cougars eat­ing a ma­rine mam­mal. But I’m not com­pletely shocked. There is some pretty de­li­cious seafood out there. Seals are loaded with calo­ries, fat and pro­tein. They’re big prizes, and, com­pared with deer, a lit­tle safer to hunt.”

An anal­y­sis of 29 cougar scat sam­ples taken from Long Beach to the West Coast Trail showed the fol­low­ing diet: rac­coon, 28 per cent; har­bour seal, 24 per cent; black- tailed deer, 24 per cent; river ot­ter, 10 per cent; sea lion, seven per cent; mink, four per cent; un­known; three per cent.

Prey items were iden­ti­fied in the field by car­cass ex­am­i­na­tion or through scat anal­y­sis by way of guard hair clas­si­fi­ca­tion and bone- frag­ment iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, Thompson said.

A mi­nor­ity of cougar scats were ver­i­fied through DNA test­ing while oth­ers were iden­ti­fied through means such as sight­ings, tracks, re­motely trig­gered cam­eras, and lo­ca­tion.

Wolves tend to de­posit their scat in con­spic­u­ous lo­ca­tions at the con­flu­ence of trails or raised ground fea­tures, Thompson said, whereas cougars are less con­spic­u­ous and of­ten bury their scat with for­est de­bris. Wolves also gen­er­ally have twisty scat, while cougar scat is more seg­mented with blunt ends.

“Cougar scat is dif­fi­cult to find,” she added. “They are soli­tary preda­tors, not like a pack of wolves.”

Although the sam­ple size is small and could dis­tort the picture of what’s hap­pen­ing, Da­ri­mont noted, the study nonethe­less con­firms that cougars can and do ex­ploit ma­rine life and em­pha­sizes the vi­tal link be­tween species that in­habit the land and ocean.

“Imag­ine the broader con­text, and what a catas­trophic oil spill would mean for ma­rine life up and down the coast,” he warned. “The ter­res­trial ecosys­tem is so cou­pled to the ma­rine ecosys­tem.”

A study of 113 wolf scat sam­ples in the park showed a sim­i­lar range of prey species, ev­i­dence of com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the two preda­tors.

One the­ory, Thompson said, is that younger cougars lack­ing the skills to take deer may be ex­ploit­ing eas­ier, smaller prey. Some cougars may also de­fer deer hunt­ing to the coast’s dom­i­nant wolf packs.

Where cougars suc­cess­fully catch a seal or sea lion, she added, it likely in­volves young or sick and in­jured in­di­vid­u­als on the shore­line. While cougars are good swim­mers, they are not thought to chase through the surf to cap­ture ma­rine life.

Thompson said the re­search em­pha­sizes the need for park vis­i­tors to be aware of the pres­ence of wolves and cougars and how to respond should they en­counter one.

An 18- month- old boy was in­jured in a cougar at­tack last Au­gust at Swim Beach, in the Kennedy Lake day- use area of the na­tional park, about 16 kilo­me­tres east of Ucluelet.

Parks Canada rec­om­mends that peo­ple en­coun­ter­ing a wolf or cougar should pick up small chil­dren and gather in a group. Do not run or crouch down. Make and main­tain eye con­tact. Wave your arms and shout, do what you can to ap­pear larger and scare the an­i­mal away. Use a noise­maker or throw rocks. Fight back if at­tacked, hit­ting the an­i­mal in the eyes or nose.

Re­searchers in Pacifi c Rim Na­tional Park Re­serve have found cougars’ favourite food is rac­coon.

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