Taking A Peek Into The Intimate Lives Of Mountain Lions

Mar 18, 2016

Pathera Researcher Mark Elbroch at a fresh mountain lion kill.
Credit Melodie Edwards

We trek through knee-deep snow along the banks of the Gros Ventre River near Jackson until we come to a heap of bones and grass. It's what remains of an elk calf.

“Here you go,” he says. “This is what it looks like. And I can tell you on Friday, we were standing in a foot of snow. I tracked the whole attack.”

Mark Elbroch is a Wildlife Researcher with Panthera's Puma Project. He tells the story with pride. He’s known this mountain lion, F61, since she was a kitten.

Listen To The Various Sounds Of Mountain Lions

“She came out of that thicket right there, took a calf elk right here and just dropped it, BAM!”

Nearby a camera bolted to a stake is filming anything that moves around the kill, even though Elbroch says F61 is done with it.

“We’re leaving one [camera] here to gather more information about scavengers. Because we found that there’s actually a group of scavengers that will feed while the cat is present and then another group that will feed after.”

“Who’s willing to feed with a mountain lion?” I can't help ask.

“The foxes,” he says, laughing, “you would not believe how ballsy they are.”

 

Elbroch shows how his team has re-purposed cheap video cameras so motion triggers can turn on the camera and high tech lights that aren't visible to wildlife.
Credit Melodie Edwards

The cameras are so sensitive it's triggered even by the motion of insects teeming on the carcass. But you can't just go out and buy one of these. If you look inside this camera, you'll find it’s a mish-mash of soldered together parts. He says they work great now but only after years of trial and error.

“We’ve had massive failures, I mean epic failures,” he says. “You know, I’d buy these expensive cameras and then be taking them apart, hacking them to try to get a motion detector to trigger them.”

Just fifteen years ago, he could only plant a few cameras because each one meant hauling an 18 pound battery into the field. Now it’s just a pound. And the technology is much better, too. Soon, Elbroch was catching incredible images of big cats going about their business.

“So we can hear them and we can see what they're doing,” he says. “And, lo and behold, they're interacting all the time and they're sharing food all the time.”

 

VIDEO OF MOUNTAIN LION SNIFFING CAMERA

Back at his office, we download images of F61 scraping grass over the elk carcass to hide it. At one point, she sniffs the camera. It's just one of 100,000 videos they've collected. Hidden in all that, is a whole secret world.

VIDEO OF MOTHER WITH THREE KITTENS

“What an amazing thing to be able to see inside the den of a mountain lion," I say. Just then, we hear the sound of a kitten yowl.

“She just sat on a kitten,” Elbroch says, laughing. “These are three weeks old.” Now there's a heavy rumbling sound. “There's a couple noises you'll hear…the kittens, but that little sound like rrrrrr in the background, a low kind of noise? She rumbles all the time. That's her.”

“Is it purring?” I ask.

“It's kind of a lower version of that, yeah,” he says. “Now, she's licking the kittens.”

He says, far from being the lone hunters of our nightmares, these are very social animals.

“You've got these huge male sons of mothers that have already outgrown their mothers and the mothers are just rolling with them and licking them. And they sleep in these huge cuddle puddles, is what interns like to call them.”

But sometimes, mountain lion relationships can get rough and tumble. But Elbroch says, they might hiss and spit but rarely do mountain lions hurt each other.

“So you're about to see one of the most violent interactions we've ever recorded,” Elbroch says and hits play on another video. One female mountain lion lies on the ground, swatting, while another stands over her, both growling. “47 just keeps coming in even though 49 starts to actually physically attack her. And after this they spent two and a half days sleeping next to each other. That's one of four instances we've ever seen physical contact. And it was minor.”

VIDEO OF FEMALE IN HEAT WITH MALE

He says the most misunderstood sound is the infamous mountain lion scream. Elbroch plays me a long, frightening screech.

Elbroch laughs. “That's a female in heat.”

Not, as many people think, the sound of an angry, hungry male about to attack. He says it’s time to let go of these old myths.

“We have rediscovered the mountain lion,” he says.

All thanks to cheaper, more powerful technology. Elbroch says it's only the beginning. He hopes to see it used to learn about the secret lives of other animals too.

“I keep saying, in my spare time, I should set it up for pika, marmots, badgers,” he says. “We stuck them in front of fox dens. We're like, hey, look a fox den, clunk. You know, and you get amazing stuff.”