Saturday, December 20, 2008

Survival of the Fittest

One of the best parts of winter is that it's easier to keep track of where animals are. When there's no snow on the ground, the signs of wild animals can be few: scat, bedded areas, munched vegetation. But in the winter, when snow covers the landscape, it becomes apparent that animals are criss-crossing the terrain. What are the large tracks seen in the snow in the above photo? We'll get to that!

Another sign that can occasionally be seen is a blood trail. An animal has been dragged across the grass and gravel.

It's dragged even further down the road, leaving a distinct trail.

The animal is dragged over a bunch of downed logs. What is being dragged? And what is dragging it? We don't have bears or wolves out in this area; the top of the food chain is the mountain lion (Puma concolor). Mountain lions are also called pumas, cougars, or simply lions. They are most active at dawn and dusk or during the night.

Their favorite prey is deer, although they will also eat elk, porcupine, rabbits, and small mammals. One study found that mountain lions generally consume 48 large and 58 small animals a year. It takes a mountain lion a few hours to eat a small mammal, but several days to eat a large animal. On average, a mountain lion kills about one deer a week. 

Thinking about this top predator, which weighs 100-150 pounds, makes seeing its tracks extra exciting. Mountain lion tracks are fairly large and well spaced, with about twelve inches between each footprint.

Mountain lions have four toes, and although they have claws, they usually retract them when walking (although I have seen claw marks in deep snow on steep hills, probably for better traction). The top of the pad has two lobes, which is different from a dog, which only has one lobe. Another big difference between cats and dogs is the position of the toes--cats are straighter across.

Because of their solitary nature and proclivity to be out and about during the dark hours, mountain lions are seldom seen. But with the aid of deer cameras, which are attached to trees and take pictures when the infrared beam is intersected, it's possible to get a better look at these creatures.

Here's a picture of a mountain lion heading towards its cached deer. After a lion takes down a deer, usually with a bite to the neck, it drags it up to 100 yards to its eating place. Then it usually makes an opening in the rib cage and eats the liver, heart, and lungs. Next it removes the rumen and intestines and buries them. The lion eats what it can;  covers up part of the carcass with pine needles, pinecones, dirt, leaves, or snow; and waits nearby until the next night so it can eat some more.

The lion doesn't seem to like the flash of the camera. The timestamp on the photo indicates the picture was taken at 8:04 p.m.

Here you can see the powerful muscles of the mountain lion. It's rare to see more than one lion at a time, unless it's a mother with her kittens. Mountain lions give birth year round, although April to September is the most common time, following a three-month gestation. If you want to see more pictures taken with these remote wildlife cameras, check out this website.

Earlier this week I mentioned in the comments of the Christmas Bird Count post that one of the observers saw an amazing sight: a freshly killed bull elk. She was coming down the trail when she heard a crashing in the woods. She went a little further and saw this elk off the side of the trail. She didn't stay, but kept on heading down the trail towards her car.

A couple days ago I went out to take a look at the elk. It was massive, with a six-point rack. It appeared that two lions had made the kill--one larger, and one smaller, so probably a mom and her kitten. About a month ago the same tracks were seen near a cow elk a few miles away. What makes this find so exciting is that no elk kills have been seen in this area for the last few years. Elk were reintroduced about a decade ago and their numbers are growing. Despite their huge size (cows average about 500 pounds, bulls about 800 pounds), it is apparent that the mountain lions have figured out a way to take them down.

Here's a closer view of the elk, with the eyes eaten out and a gaping hole in its neck. I sure wonder how the kill went down. Mountain lions generally kill by waiting in ambush, so the elk was most likely surprised.

A couple people went with me to look at the elk, including the lady who first found it. A remote camera was installed on the tree and has been taking pictures at night, so in a week or so we may be able to see more amazing photos of who's been feeding on the elk. 

4 comments:

The Incredible Woody said...

Yippee - I guessed correctly!

Caroline said...

How interesting! Wild!!!
~C

Sarah said...

WOW

Ryan said...

Very cool resource management!! I look forward to seeing what you got on the remote camera. I think you should hang the antlers on the RM building.

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