Pumas Hate Listening To Political Pundits, But They’re Fine With Frogs

Pumas may be the most nonpartisan big cats in the world. They’ve run from everyone from Amy Goodman and Rush Limbaugh to Rachel Maddow and Glenn Beck. And they have a good reason. For pumas, humans from all political parties are dangerous.

For six years, Justine Smith has been working with the Santa Cruz Puma Project, a research collaboration between UC Santa Cruz and the California Department of Fish and game based in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Smith, a graduate student, wanted to learn more about how human activity affects Cougars. He installed cameras and microphones at several killing sites (where big cats feed), which, while the pumas ate, played human voices from various radio programs. The goal was to test whether pumas innately associated the sound of the human voice with danger, and considered them threats.

Previously,” it was not clear that large carnivores perceived humans directly as predators, ” Smith says. He wanted to know if human disturbances caused Cougars to flee from humans, or if simply the sound of humans could frighten.

Ultimately, Smith conducted 29 experiments with 17 Cougars, and 83% of the time the Cougars fled a place of death upon hearing the human voice. Only once did a puma flee from the sound of a frog. He said he chose political radio commentators because ” we thought it would be a little more fun to play with the partisanship of the day.”The radio voices also provided clear pre-recorded audio files that worked well to simulate human conservation. Some animals, he noted, learned to adapt to the human voice, but many simply never returned to the place of death from which they fled.

Learning how Cougars react to the human voice is important, as ” humans are a major source of mortality for cougars,” Smith says. Cats are often shot by humans or run over by cars. Cougars probably need the fear that Smith’s study found coexists with humans, forcing them to ” hide in the shadows and navigate around us.”

Humans endanger more than pumas. Forced to eat quickly and often only at night, Cougars must kill more deer to maintain enough energy to survive, altering the ecological balance.

The research is based on previous studies that demonstrated higher death rates of deer in more urban areas. This study provided further evidence that fear was driving the ecological cascade from humans to Cougars who prey on deer. (Ecological cascade occurs when secondary extinction is triggered as a result of the extinction of a primary species.) Researchers believe their study supports that even humans themselves, without human disturbances (such as cars), can scare large populations of carnivores.

The Santa Cruz Puma Project does more than just ecological research, it also studies the physiology and behavior of pumas. The collaboration is also currently working on creating a wildlife necklace that can track an animal’s location and behavior, as well as educating California communities about ecology and conservation.

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