Mountain Lions Are Way More Important to America Than We Thought

Mountain lions are crucial to the balance of ecosystems in the U.S. and across the Americas, according to a study looking at the impact of these predators on the landscape.

The study, published in Mammal Review, was a joint project between scientists and conservationists with Defenders of Wildlife and Panthera. Researchers looked at the plant and animal species that mountain lions interact with across various habitats by conducting a review of existing literature.

They found mountain lions, also known as pumas, interact with hundreds of species and play a direct role in balancing various habitats as "ecological brokers" across the Americas.

They found mountain lions interact with almost 500 species—which is believed to be more relationships than any other carnivore in the world.

Lead author Laura LaBarge, postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany, told Newsweek: "What's surprising is the range of species that benefit from feeding on puma kills. Andean Condors are one example of scavengers that are dependent on South American pumas.

"In North America, in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, for example, 11 per cent of local bird species—including some songbirds—feed on puma kills."

Pumas live in habitats across the Americas, from the to the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains, to the jungles of Bolivia and Brazil.

If their numbers were to decline in any of these places, the surrounding ecosystems would be directly impacted. Mark Elboch, study co-author and Director of Puma Program at Panthera, said that a loss of puma numbers in any given habitat would have knock-on effects.

"I expect the biggest impacts would be felt by scavengers and carrion-dependent species," he told Newsweek. "Those impacts would be seen in the abundance and distribution of carrion-dependent insects, like carrion beetles, birds like caracaras and eagles, and mammals as well, as they are all shaped by apex carnivores that provide carcasses.

"Declines in these species would have cascading impacts on biodiversity, nutrient spread and availability, as well as disease transmission related to lingering waste products."

Puma seen in Santiago, Chile
A puma is seen on the streets of Santiago, Chile. Despite their fearsome reputation, new research shows pumas bring benefits to human populations. ANDRES PINA / Contributor/Getty Images

Increasing puma numbers that could be spurred on by conservation or rewilding efforts would have beneficial impacts on ecosystems. In the U.S., for example, a future expansion of puma beyond their current range in the western states would help manage the sometimes adverse impacts of one of their key prey—deer.

"If pumas eventually expanded into more of their former range in the Midwest and the eastern portion of North America in sufficient numbers, we might expect them to scare deer away from places that are good for ambush hunting which could result in a reduction in deer overgrazing plant communities," LaBarge said.

The study also said pumas can be beneficial to human beings. Among them were a reduction in traffic accidents and economic benefits associated with this, because mountain lions help regulate the number of deer or other animals often linked to collisions.

"Pumas are charismatic and are certainly culturally important across the Americas—but they also provide ecosystem services to people that directly benefit our health and economies," LaBarge said. "Deer-vehicle collisions are one example of this where puma recolonization is associated with reductions in economic losses, injuries, and lives lost."

Christian Hunt, of the Defenders of Wildlife Southeast Field Office, also highlighted benefits of protecting mountain lion populations. "By reducing vehicle collisions with deer, potentially regulating invasive species such as feral hog, and preventing over browsing, pumas benefit natural and human communities," he told Newsweek.

"We should welcome the return of this important species and protect it where it remains today," he said.

Puma seen in Washington State
A puma interacts with a camera on Christmas Eve, 2020 in Washington State. New research shows the animals provide tangible benefits to humans as well as being key "brokers" in their ecosystems. Olympic Cougar Project/Panthera