66M: The Early Bird Gets The Puma

Sunrise from Mt Umhunum.  Fog in the Santa Clara Valley, and the lights of New Almaden below.

Sunrise from Mt Umhunum. Fog in the Santa Clara Valley. Nighttime lights of New Almaden.

My day started early today in the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve. I had been out since 5:30am searching for puma 26M in order to locate him for recapture. My plan was to start early and search for the radio signal from his tracking collar, and if I found him on property we had permission to work, to then call one of our houndsmen to assist with recapturing him. That is the standard procedure when trying to recapture pumas to replace the batteries on their collars on our project.

Unfortunately, I had no luck finding him.  I started driving down from the mountaintop to head home, and I saw fresh territorial scrape markings along the roadside. Upon inspection, I considered the scat on the scrapes to be too dry on the outside to have been made last night.  Instead it was probably from 2 nights ago. I had detected 26M from an airplane 2 days prior and knew that he was not near this location, so this was likely a different male puma.

Up ahead on the road, I found puma tracks – big puma tracks.  The first ones I saw were a bit dusty, like the wind had blown on them.  From many years of tracking in this area I know the wind tends to blow in the afternoon when the sun’s heat creates wind currents. Upon closer look, though, there was more than one set of tracks and they looked fresher.  The day before was a Sunday, and on weekends there are many hikers and mountain bikers on this roadway.  The fresher set of puma tracks were on top of the bike tracks. Putting together all of my information, it was seeming that the puma had likely been in this area for a couple days because of the drying scat and wind-blown tracks, plus the fresher tracks on top of yesterday’s bike marks.

Mark of puma dragging a deer across the road

Mark of puma dragging a deer across the road

Pumas rarely spend two days in the same spot unless something is attracting them there, usually food or a mate. It seemed that there was likely more to the story if I looked a bit closer. I quickly found a funny-looking mark in the road, like an elongated human heel.  I realized it was the back of a puma’s hind leg, and there was another one next to it, with a funny long mark between them – the puma’s long and furry tail! Most importantly, right next to the puma’s sitting mark was a broad line across the road, like a stroke painted with a brush.  The marks were very fine, and in the dust it looked like they were made by hair dragged through the dust.  This mark was also on top of the bike tracks making it from last night.

Despite years of tracking pumas, I have only found this a couple of times under these circumstances, and it is the mark of a puma dragging heavy prey, in our area usually a deer.  Deer are too heavy and large for a puma to pick up off the ground, so the puma drags it.  I looked carefully at the dust and could see that it had been smeared onto the rocks in one direction only, which showed that the deer had been dragged in that one direction – downhill. That made sense from the puma’s point of view – if you needed to drag something that weighed 100+ pounds, which would be easier for you: to drag it uphill and fight gravity, or downhill?

The drag mark led off the road.  However, it was hard to follow because of the leaves, so I doubted my ability to follow it and instead followed the drag back where it entered the road from uphill.  About 50 feet up I found a place where there was a struggle and the hair of a puma against a small tree.  This was the place where the puma killed the deer, a rare find indeed!

Knowing that, and fresh with confidence, I went back to the drag and followed it across the road. With some searching I saw what I was looking for to tell me there the drag had led – a single blackberry leaf, still alive but bent weirdly away from the road. Some force has to bend a plant like that; it doesn’t happen on its own.  I headed in that direction and soon found a line of disturbed leaves on the ground and dents in the leaves the size of small plates – the puma’s tracks.  I slowly followed the trail through the forest, paying attention to disturbances, for about 300 feet and then the tracks vanished.

Antlers and ear of a buck mule deer, killed, eaten, and buried by a male puma

Antlers and ear of a buck mule deer, killed, eaten, and buried by a male puma

Weird!  Puma’s don’t just vanish – they are big animals!  I must have missed something.  I stopped, took some deep breaths to release frustration, and quieted my mind… And then I heard them —flies, lots of them— close-by and to my left.  That many flies only gather when there is something attracting them, like bees to a flowering bush.  In this case, it was a pile of leaves with a deer ear and antler sticking out of it.  The puma’s kill!

I don’t know where the puma is now but he’s probably close by. I’ve watched the GPS locations from 26M shift slowly to the west over the last year, and he’s no longer visiting some places that are great puma habitat – oak trees with numerous deer and female pumas. That has suggested that 26M had a new neighboring male puma. This is probably him that killed this deer. We’ll try to collar him and then maybe we’ll find out.

One day later…

We attempted to catch the puma with the hounds later that day but ground conditions were too dry. Months and months of the annual summer-time dryness take their toll. Moisture holds scent, and animals need that moisture to enable them to follow a track (Note: To experience this yourself, find a scented object and smell it. Now, went your fingers and dampen your nostrils and smell again). After this failed attempt, we pulled the remains of his kill into a box trap.

Our PhD candidate, Justine Smith, led a team that camped out near the trap. During the night, under a nearly-full moon, the puma walked into the trap. Our team tranquilized and fitted him with a cutting-edge accelerometer-equipped collar. He is now dubbed puma 66M by our project. 66m is approximately 4 years old, typical of a resident male puma, and he weighed an impressive 138 lbs. We look forward to tracking him further in the coming years, and seeing how he interacts with 26m and the other pumas in our study.

38F: Catching a Thief

Three week old cub of puma 38F.  Photographed in July 2013.

Three week old cub of puma 38F. Photographed in July 2013.

We recaptured puma 38F last week.  She’s a 4 year old female. 38F’s previous claim to fame was being the star of a great web video that was produced by San Francisco’s KQED and the eventual mother of this cute little guy…

Using radio-telemetry collars, like we do on this project, requires that we periodically recapture each puma to replace the batteries on the collar. Currently the batteries on our collars need to be replaced about every 2 years, although the life of the battery continues to get longer as technology improves. The batteries on tracking collars run out in stages. First the GPS unit stops working, and we no longer get location data, then lastly the radio telemetry beacon stops.

We’d attempted to recapture 38F using dogs a couple of times last spring, however on both occasions she climbed too high in the tree for us to think she’d be safe if the tranquilizing drugs took effect before she climbed down. This is a rare event, but one that we plan for in case it happens. As a result, despite our best efforts to recapture 38F, the batteries began to run out on the collar without our being able to replace them.


Houndsman Cliff Wylie with dogs (from left) Cleo, Pearl, and Boomer.

Last week, we were fortunate because 38F came to us. We had left a couple of deer in the forest to unthaw before placing them as bait. When we went back to retrieve them the day after, one of them had been dragged away and buried. The faint radio-tracking signal from 38F’s collar told us she was close by and the likely culprit of this petty theft. We set a trap, and with a team of volunteers and undergraduates monitoring the trap, we caught 38F shortly after sunset. We are not likely to see her in person for another two years until it is time to replace the batteries on her collar again.

All of the gps locations for puma 38F since May 2013.

All of the gps locations for puma 38F since May 2013. Green lines are boundaries of public parklands.

The Bay Area is a great place to research relationships between people and pumas. The region is blessed with progressive land planning that has set aside vast open space areas for recreation and privately-owned areas that are managed for timber and wildlife habitat. Between and surrounding them are places where people live: small communities, major urban edges, sparse or sprawling dwellings. Our research shows that pumas wind their way through all of them. 38F lives almost entirely in the quiet open space of the San Vincente Redwoods and data about her life provides a valuable comparison to the lives of pumas that have more contact with people. Through work like this, we will continue to learn more about this landscape we inhabit from the puma’s view, and how to make choices that allow it to support people and pumas into the future.

RIP 36m – Genomics godfather to all pumas!

Remember 36m?  This is the guy whose home range included the UCSC campus and went all the way up north close to Big Basin!

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One day he even decided to make a kill within view of the front steps of my office building.  Not sure who was stalking who :-).

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36m also had a penchant for crossing Western ave and coming into town.  If you were a raccoon trying to hide in one of those canyons – watch out, cuz 36m had your number.

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But mostly 36m hung out outside of town in the coastal bluffs and redwoods that look out over the pacific ocean – some of the most beautiful country in the world.  That’s where he really made his living, killing deer and keeping tabs on his better halves – 29f,10f and 25f and their kittens (watch him courting 10f here).   They were his pride – only ever meeting to mate – but 36m kept them safe by keeping any intruding males away.

Last week we discovered 36m’s collar was on mortality mode.  When we went in to investigate we found that he had died about 3 weeks previously.  Unfortunately his body was too decayed to tell definitively how he died, but we were able to rule out a vehicle strike, gunshot or another puma.  Its most likely that he died of poison but we can’t be sure.  Right before dying he had eaten a raccoon in the same place that he had previously eaten a coyote and cat. The problem with eating these smaller predators is that they can be full of rodenticides from the small rodents they eat that have been poisoned.

While 36m was a bad ass puma by any measure, he might one day come to be the most recognized puma anywhere.  That’s because we just recently (well really it was Ed Green and Beth Shapiro) completed a de novo contig assembly of his genome.  In short time, this will be the puma genome against which other puma genomes can be compared and used to test all sorts of evolutionary and ecological questions about pumas.

We first got to know 36m as a young puma appearing clandestinely in trail cameras set up within 3m‘s territory (3m was the first male puma in our study with a territory almost identical to what became 36m’s).  3m was a big bruiser and we couldn’t imagine anything happening to him, but soon after 36m arrived, 3m was no longer, and all of a sudden the cubs in that territory started getting killed by a puma (most notably 2f’s cubs). After that brief period of mayhem, 36m established his territory and all has been calm for puma on the north coast for the past few years.  But within days of 36m dying last month, 29f’s kitten was killed by a puma in Wilder State Park.  The next few months are likely to be tough ones for pumas on the north coast, until a new male is firmly established in this territory.  So it goes with puma…

2 week-old kittens


This is a pair of 2 week old puma kittens. We make our initial visit to dens at 2 weeks in order to confirm it is a den and count how many kittens were born. We return at 4 weeks to place collars on kittens in order to track their growth and survival. Our published research has found that human development has negative impacts on nursery site selection.

Pumas Above San Jose


A photo of a puma family above the night time lights of San Jose. This photo was captured with a motion-triggered camera by our field technician Chris Fust. The effects of urbanization and human activity are a focus of our project. We have found that human development affects where pumas choose to have dens and scent marking areas, and also affects how often pumas kill prey.