Mountain Lions Adapt to Save Energy in New Terrain

Due to climate change, they're being forced to move into new habitats.

mountain lions in California
Mountain lions were fitted with GPS trackers in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Chris Wilmers

Mountain lions that have had to relocate into steep terrain have learned to adapt their behavior to save energy in their new habitat. An international team of researchers has discovered how these wild cats slow down when climbing and descending, and also when crossing steep slopes. They put mountain lions on treadmills as part of their research.

Due to the effects of habitat loss from climate change, more animals are forced to expand their range. They can face challenges as they move into these new environments.

Mountain lions — also known as pumas or cougars — have faced habitat loss due to human development for agricultural and residential purposes, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The cats are also threatened by hunting, fires, road collisions, and disease.

As their habitat dwindles and threats increase, mountain lions seek new habitat, often heading to higher ground. But the steep terrain is novel and can be difficult to navigate. Researchers have found that the cats learn to adapt. This not only conserves energy, but it helps the population survive.

"Mountain lions are widespread throughout the Americas and some live in steep mountainous habitats, so we wanted to investigate how the cats are impacted by these steep terrains in their day-to-day activities," lead author Carolyn Dunford, researcher from The School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, told Treehugger.

The research was conducted by a team from Queen’s University Belfast, the Santa Cruz Puma Project and Integrative Carnivore EcoPhysiology lab from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the Foothills Wildlife Research Facility in California. 

"The Santa Cruz Puma Project is a long-running study of puma ecology and the data collected helps answer important physiological and ecological questions, as well as advise how we might best conserve habitat for pumas in this area," Dunford said. "Our part of this research was to investigate how puma energetics are affected by mountainous landscapes as well as how steep terrains might affect how they move through these habitats, and therefore which habitats might be most suitable for them."

Tracking the Cats

mountain lion on treadmill
A mountain lion walks on a treadmill as part of the study.  Terrie Williams

To study how the mountain lions might deal with the high energy cost of always moving in new steep, mountainous habitats, the researchers turned to treadmills.

They decided to train cats raised in captivity to walk on a treadmill. That way they could measure how much oxygen they used while walking flat and while walking on an incline.

"The training was always totally voluntary for the pumas, so it took a good few months," Dunford said. "The cats were rewarded with their favorite meat treats throughout and the training also provided great exercise and enrichment!"

At the same time, GPS trackers were placed on wild mountain lions in the Santa Cruz Mountains. That allowed researchers to keep note of how they moved throughout the landscape and allowed them to calculate their energy expenditures.

The results, published in Movement Ecology, found that when a mountain lion faced an incline of a shallow 6.8 degrees, the animal's energy use increased by more than 40%. They found that mountain lions typically traversed hillsides in order to lessen the angle they had to climb. They also moved much more slowly when they climbed in order to conserve energy. To further save energy, the cats only spent 10% of the day on the move and about 60% of their time resting.

"The behaviors seen are used daily by the pumas for them to conserve energy. Energy intake and output need to be balanced for them to survive, and the energy saved can then be spent on other activities such as hunting or breeding," Dunford said. "The loss of lowland habitats may lead to pumas having to live in steeper areas, so these behaviors could become more important for them in the future."

Adapting behavior isn't a novel concept, but this study shows the specifics of how the mountain lions do it.

"Our findings show that pumas have an in-built ability to conserve energy and this might also be the case for other animals that live in mountains," Dunford said. "Behaviors that conserve energy and the 'path of least resistance' idea is not new, but we have shown exactly how a top predator uses these in the wild."