How to tell if a lion or coyote killed a deer

That’s a strange title for a blog post, no?

We frequently receive calls and messages from local landowners telling us about a fresh-dead deer in their yard.  This is fascinating information and helpful to our research – we’ve trapped and collared several mountain lions in this way.  In many cases, the deer was killed by a lion.  In many other cases, the deer was killed by coyotes.  What are some ways to tell the difference?

Mountain lion kill is typically…

…under cover (brush, shrubs, trees).  Lions tend to not leave their food out under open sky.  An exception may be if the deer was killed in a fence enclosure, and then the lion is likely to have dried dragging it past the fence.

Note how the forest debris has been raked into a pile. Cats do this.

Note how the forest debris has been raked into a pile. Cats do this.

…covered with leaves, sticks, grass.  There will be an area around the deer where the raking of the lion’s paws left bare dirt.

…eaten starting at the ribs.  Lions tend to eat the chest-area organs first (lungs, heart, liver).  They chew a hole in the ribs to get to these tasty and most-nutritious morsels.

…missing the stomach.  Lions remove the stomach (called the rumen) when they first open the check cavity and bury is a few feet away from the body.  This prevents stomach acids from spoiling the meat over the 3-5 days it will take the lion to finish eating the entire deer.

…”shaved”!  Yes, you read that right.  Lions will nip the hair off of the body of a deer before they start chewing into it.  Think of a surgeon shaving the patient before cutting.  The clumps of nipped hair are about 1” across – the distance between the lion’s canine teeth.  They snip the hair with their incisors.

…neat and tidy.  The deer is usually in one piece (rather than scattered about – a leg here, a leg there…).


Coyote kill is typically…

Note how the hindquarters are the first part to be fed on, and there's no attempt to drag the deer out; it's lying in the open.

Note how the hindquarters are the first part to be fed on, and there’s no attempt to drag the deer; it’s in the open.

…in the open.  We seem to find several deer killed by coyotes along fencelines, as if coyotes trap the deer against the fence or run the deer into the fence and kill it by injury.

…uncovered.  Coyotes don’t cache their leftover food.  That’s a cat behavior.

…eaten starting at the hind end.

…messy.  Picture a group of dogs playing tug-o-war and that’s largely what you’ll find.  A piece here, a leg there.  Stomach contents spilled and guts dragged around.


Another good clue is whether coyotes are regularly seen or heard in the neighborhood.  Not everyone has coyotes in their neighborhood.  Coyotes tend to be found in certain areas in the Santa Cruz Mountains such as rural residential areas and coastal grassland prairies.  It’s likely because their preferred foods are in those places more than in the deep redwoods and oak forests that make up most of these mountains.


If you find a deer that has been recently killed and you’re willing to allow us to use it to trap a mountain lion for our research, please contact us ASAP.  If possible, we’ll come and investigate.  If you’re unsure whether the deer was killed by a lion or coyote, please – still contact us and we’ll come take a look.

Chris’s Talk at the Rio

For those of you who missed Chris’s sellout talk at the Rio, here is a great writeup about it in the Sentinel.  Chris gave an exciting talk about our work so far with over 600 people filling the auditorium!  We’d like to thank the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County for hosting him and making the talk possible.

If you missed that talk, join Chris at Bridging the Gap night, March 19th at 7:00 pm.  For more information on this upcoming talk, check out the event website.

Chris discussing our first puma (photo by Mike Bolte).

Chris discussing our first puma (photo by Mike Bolte).

Chris engaging with the audience

Chris engaging with the audience (photo by Mike Bolte)

Why did the puma cross the road?…

…Well, maybe why isn’t as important as how.  Thanks to the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, the pumas of the Santa Cruz Mountains are on their way to having a safe way to cross Highway 17!  Read more about it in their press release!

We’ve talked before about how habitat connectivity is a very important part of puma biology.   Pumas need to be able to around the landscape to find prey, mates, places to have their young, and safe places to be wild animals.  As we increase development, we decrease the amount of habitat available to them, and we often isolate remaining habitat patches.  Large, busy roads, like Highway 17, create barriers that are dangerous for pumas to cross.

Crossing structures, such as culverts and wildlife overpasses, reconnect fragmented habitat patches.  The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County used some of our data to locate land to purchase near Laurel Curve, a particularly dangerous stretch of road, with the hopes of restoring connectivity across the highway.  This is a very exciting new project that could help keep pumas from suffering the same fate as 16M, 39M, 18F, and many others.  With any luck, creating a safe way to cross Highway 17 will serve the dual purpose of keeping pumas safe from cars, and people safe from collisions with wildlife!

16M's battle scar

16M with a large injury after getting hit by a car on Highway 17.  He survived this encounter, but he was one of the lucky ones.


41M and 46M have a mom after all!

Since October 2013, when we caught 41M while 46M looked on, we have repeatedly seen the brothers together. However, until just now, there has been no sign of a mom. We wondered if they had perhaps been orphaned, but their mom finally appeared on a fresh deer kill when our team was out tracking 41M a few days ago. In the video below, you can see the mom jumping back and forth across the stream next to her kill. Eventually 41M joined her to feed as well.

Having both 41M and 46M collared before they disperse away from their mom’s territory will allow us to get really valuable information on how pumas establish new territories in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We hope to learn about how dispersing animals interact with human disturbance and if they ever attempt to disperse out of the Santa Cruz Mountains east across the 101 or south toward Monterrey and Big Sur.

Learn From Your Siblings…

In early October, we told you about catching 41M and how his sibling climbed up on top of the cage and taunted him through the bars.  Last night we saw that 41M’s brother didn’t learn from 41M’s experience…

In this video, we see 41M (with his shiny new collar) looking at the cage trap with some trepidation.

He remembered his last encounter with that pesky cage trap, and even though he wants that dead deer, he wasn’t willing to go in.

His brother, on the other hand, had a fine time when 41M was caught, and ended up going into the trap last night.  Here we see our newest collared cat, 46M, laying in the trap, eating all the deer, while 41M looks on with envy.

46M weighed 92lbs and appears to be traveling with only 41M.  They could still be with their mom, but we haven’t seen her yet.  Whether or not she is around, they are near dispersal age, and they will soon leave the area where they grew up to find new territory they can occupy.   This is a tricky time for them as they will have to cross roads, territories held by other, very unwelcoming males, and enter into unfamiliar areas.  This is the first brother pair we’ve been able to monitor, so we’re very excited to see how long they travel together and where they will each end up!