Puma predation of dangerous prey

Stage-dependent puma predation on dangerous prey

L.M. Elbroch, J Feltner, and H.B. Quigley; Journal of Zoology, Volume 302, Issue 3, Pages 164-170, July 2017


I found the fresh footprints of a subadult male puma not one mile from the typically bustling headquarters of the High Lonesome Ranch in western Colorado, USA. But it was early and the ranch had yet to wake. I sat on the track in the pitch black, awaiting sunrise and the arrival of our houndsmen, Grant and Cody. My radio crackled soon enough, and I guided them to meet me in the field. Quickly, we released hounds trained in the art of catching pumas, and quicker than any of us expected, we caught a young male we called P3, and fitted him with a GPS collar. He weighed 46 kg (102 lbs), and was approximately 18-20 months of age. He’d not long left his mother.

Fig 1 Killed porcupine
Neal Wight gathers data on a porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) killed by a subadult male puma in western Colorado. Photo by Mark Elbroch

P3 remained in our study area but a day; he was likely dispersing in search of his own territory when we caught him. He moved east, and north, paralleling Interstate 70. We followed, conducting field investigations everywhere he remained in place for four or more hours, in search of prey remains. While he traveled, just 8% of his diet was adult elk or deer, which made sense given that large, adult ungulates could be dangerous. Pumas are occasionally killed when pierced or crushed by antlers or horns, or when thrown by large prey and subsequently slammed into trees. Instead of deer and elk, an amazing 28% of P3’s diet was North American porcupines. Porcupines differ from other mammals in North and South America, in that they wear weapons to deter potential predators. Porcupines are covered by approximately 30,000 quills—sharp, rigid, hollow hairs 2–10 cm long, and each tipped with 700-800 barbs. Pumas are sometimes killed as a consequence of hunting porcupines as well.

In contrast, when P3 established a home range four months later and 65 miles northeast of where we captured him, 32% of his diet was adult deer and elk, and his intake of porcupines dropped to just 12%. In fact, after several months in his new territory, he stopped eating porcupines altogether. P3’s pattern of foraging was repeated several times as we followed dispersing pumas in the Rocky Mountains, USA and thus, a question was born: could we predict which pumas choose dangerous prey?

Fig 2 Live porcupine
North American porcupine Erethizon dorsatum. Photo by Mark Elbroch

Ecologists have in fact already made such predictions. Large carnivores should kill prey larger than themselves because then they can save energy by hunting less often. Nevertheless, Hayward et al. (2007) found that young African lions hunted small prey while they learned the requisite skills to take down larger, more dangerous prey. Following this research, we formed our first prediction: young pumas would avoid adult deer and elk, because of the dangers they pose to naïve hunters.

Somewhat in contrast to what was documented in African lions, ecologists also predict that juvenile predators, individuals of lower social rank, and hungry, less-experienced individuals are more likely to take additional risks and attack dangerous prey (Mukherjee & Heithaus, 2013). Thus, our second prediction was that young, inexperienced, dispersing pumas unfamiliar with the terrain through which they passed would be more likely to attack porcupines, a small prey easy to capture, but one made dangerous by the quills they wear.

Fig 3 Puma
P90, a subadult female puma the day after she killed a porcupine (we removed the quills while she was anesthetized). Photo by Mark Elbroch

When we stepped back to assess a sample of pumas, the pattern was very clear—each of the ecologists before us were right. Young, dispersing pumas avoided dangerous adult elk and deer and disproportionately hunted smaller game; they also disproportionately killed dangerous porcupines. We believe this stage-dependent foraging pattern (young, dispersing animals versus resident adult pumas) is important in describing the ecology of pumas, as well as in identifying potential dispersal habitat that could see puma expansion in North and South America where they were previously eradicated.

Mark Elbroch



Hayward, M.W., Hofmeyr, M., O’Brien, J. & Kerley, G.I.H. (2007). Testing predictions of the prey of the lion (Panthera leo) derived from modelled prey preferences. J.Wildl. Manage. 71, 1567–1575.

Mukherjee, S. & Heithaus, M.R. (2013) Dangerous prey and daring predators: a review. Biol. Rev. 88, 550–563.

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