Death Valley Cougars Seen Killing and Eating Feral Donkeys for First Time

Cougars in California's Death Valley have been observed killing and eating donkeys for the first time ever. Images captured on a camera trap in the National Park have shown a kill sequence of a cougar taking down and then feasting on a donkey in the dead of night.

Saber toothed cats and dire wolves used to hunt wild horses around 12,000 years ago, across North America. However when these predators died out, the continent's thriving population of horses and donkeys were left to roam free, without any predators capable of hunting them.

Feral horses and donkeys have become so well established in the wild that they are often considered pests and the government implements initiatives to remove them.

However, a study by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has announced that cougars, also known as mountain lions, are preying on wild donkeys in Death Valley.

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A picture taken on a camera trap shows a cougar preying on a feral donkey. Erick Lundgren

In order to observe the donkey activity patterns in areas were cougars are active, and those where they are not, scientists set up camera traps in the Death Valley National Park.

The findings, published in the Journal of Animal Ecology, revealed that "cougar predation appears to rewire an ancient food web." It suggests that cougars are taking the place of the ancient predators that once preyed on feral donkeys in the wild, 12,000 years ago.

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Feral donkeys in Death Valley. Cougars have taken the place of dire wolves and saber tooth tigers as predators of donkeys in the National Park. Michael Alfuso

Study lead author Erick Lundgren, of Aarhus University, told Newsweek: "These findings are important because they dispel a longstanding claim that wild burros—and wild horses—lack natural predators.

"This claim is key to policy about how these animals are treated and the current predicament: the [California state] budget is nearly depleted by rounding up these animals and putting them in long term holding for adoption. Our results suggest that we could instead increase protections for cougars—and wolves—whom state and federal agencies otherwise spend millions of dollars killing."

Scientists also discovered that cougar predation leads to changes in feral donkey behavior, as well as their impact on the local ecosystem.

The study said that this illustrates, "not only how extinct ecosystems may have functioned but also the conservation potential of preserving this interaction between predator and prey."

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A picture taken by a camera trap shows a cougar leaping on a feral donkey. Erick Lundgren

Scientists found that the donkeys were primarily active during the day at wetlands with cougar predation. This suggest they were doing so in order to avoid the cougars.

However, feral donkeys were active both day and night at sites where there were no threats from cougars. "The differences between wetlands with and without mountain lion predation are remarkable," Lundgren said in a statement, "and are even visible from satellite imagery."

At sites where cougar predation was present, donkeys had far less impact on the wetland ecosystem. Scientist recorded 43 percent less trampled bare ground and 192 percent more canopy cover.

"These are the areas land managers and conservationists are concerned about and use to argue for the wholesale removal of wild donkeys," Lundgren said in a statement. "However, if you go just a few kilometers away to wetlands where mountain lions are hunting donkeys, wetlands are lush with untouched vegetation, have only one or two donkey trails, and limited trampling."