Mountain lions fear humans which limits their use of space particularly for males

Researchers from UC Santa Cruz have found that mountain lions are frightened of humans which badly affects their ecology. The ecology of a mountain lion refers to mountain lions’ relationship with their surroundings, other mountain lions and other animals (including humans). This fear of humans particularly badly impacted males as the researchers found that their home ranges were reduced by around three quarters; a tremendous loss of space.

Mountain lions are scared of people and it affects them negatively
Mountain lions are scared of people and it affects them negatively. Image: MikeB

Males have much larger home ranges than females which probably accounts for the fact that males are more impacted by this innate fear.

The mountain lion’s fear of humans “has all kinds of impacts on their behaviour and ecology. And ultimately, potentially even their populations and conservation” according to Professor Chris Wilmers, the lead author of the study.

Barry Nickel, director of UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Integrated Spatial Research said that this fear limits their use of the space they use which in turn affects other aspects of their ecology such as finding food and competing with other males and finding mates.

In traversing their habitats, the fear led to mountain lions travelling over longer distances to get from A to B; wasting energy. The researchers fitted GPS collars and accelerometers to the mountain lions of which there were eight adult males and five adult females. These devices were a bit like the Fitbit devices for humans as they were able to estimate how many calories a mountain lion burned and how fast the cat was moving.

They wanted to compare how much energy and time was used up avoiding people compared to the energy expended navigating physical terrain. They found that the higher the housing density the more impact it had particularly on males.

And the impact of housing density on mountain lion behaviour and expenditure of energy was 4-10 times greater than the effect of the increasing ruggedness and slopes of the terrain.

Barry Nickel states that mountain lions expend 13% more calories every five-minute period in places close to people than they would in remote habitats. This indicates, on my understanding, that mountain lions are in effect wasting energy avoiding people by zigzagging or taking movements and altering directions to minimise their proximity to human settlements.

The end result is that the mountain lion’s conservation might be affected negatively. If a species has to expend more energy, which is wasted energy, because of an unjustified fear it will have a big negative impact. I say unjustified as hunting mountain lions is banned in California, the location of this study.

This chimes with another study on the African continent which revealed that animals around a waterhole all feared human voices played on a speaker. Animals – including large iconic species such as leopards and rhinos – were more fearful of the human voice than they were of the presence of a top predator such as a lion which is indicative of the level of fear experienced by even top predators of the human [link to this article].

Source reference: Barry A. Nickel, Justin P. Suraci, Anna C. Nisi, and Christopher C. Wilmers. Energetics and fear of humans constrain the spatial ecology of pumasPNAS, 2021 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2004592118

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