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Hunters or Hunted? Wolves vs. Mountain Lions

F109, a 6-yr old cougar, nursing three 3-week old kittens. Credit Mark Elbroch/Panthera

F109, a six-year-old cougar, nursing three three-week-old kittens. She wears a Vectronics satellite collar which allows researchers to follow her movements in near real time and study the secret lives of mountain lions. Photograph by Mark Elbroch/Panthera

Wolves are coursing, social predators that operate in packs to select disadvantaged prey in open areas where they can test their prey’s condition. Mountain lions are solitary, ambush predators that select prey opportunistically (i.e., of any health) in areas where slopes, trees, boulders, or other cover gives them an advantage. Thus, wolves and cougars inhabit and utilize different ecological niches, allowing them to spatially and temporally coexist; nevertheless, in the absence of wolves, cougars utilize areas traditionally assumed to be the sole dominion of coursing wolves. This suggests that where wolves are sympatric with cougars, wolves limit mountain lions.

In fact, wolves kill mountain lions. This has never been disputed. Wolves are considered the dominant competitors in most interactions between the species. Take for instance, the Hornocker Institute study of mountain lions in Northern Yellowstone led by Dr. Toni Ruth, in which researchers discovered the remains of three mountain lions killed by wolves. What is contentious is the idea that mountain lions might kill wolves.

Look carefully for the mountain lion in the background, pushed off its kill by a large wolf...caught on remote camera. Credit Teton Cougar project/Panthera

Look carefully for the mountain lion in the background, pushed off its kill by a large wolf caught on remote camera. Photograph courtesy Teton Cougar Project/Panthera

Liz Bradley, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wolf biologist, reports that she has discovered five wolves killed by mountain lions in three years—all bearing the characteristic canine punctures in their skulls betraying the identity of the perpetrator. Some dispute her claims and point out that wolves fight each other too, especially adjacent packs, and that they also attack the head; skeptics believe a canine puncture in a wolf skull could be made by another wolf just as easily as a mountain lion.

The Teton Cougar Project operates in the Southern Yellowstone Ecosystem, and is one of very few long-term studies of mountain lions. Since the start of the project, wolves have trickled into the area, established territories and reproduced. In 2001, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveys estimated that there were about 10 wolves in our study area, and that number steadily increased to as high as 91 in 2010. To date, we’ve documented five lions killed by wolves, all kittens, and all less than six months old while they were still relatively slow to climb and less than fully coordinated. But it was just last October that we finally documented the contrary. For the first time, a mountain lion we were tracking killed a wolf.

She’s a particularly feral mountain lion, F109, an adult female with three three-month-old kittens. All cougars are feral, of course, but there’s something unique about F109. She has “crazy” eyes, and always wanders the most rugged, inhospitable terrain. She was near impossible to catch in the first place. She’s a survivor.

We can’t tell you exactly what happened, but we can describe what we deciphered from the clues left behind in the snow. F109 was up high traversing steep, barren slopes, where we expected there was little game. Nevertheless, her location data indicated that she’d stopped and we suspected she’d made a kill. We slogged up the mountain to investigate, the ground bare of snow adjacent the road, but as deep as our thigh in the high bowl where she lingered. The entire area preceding her position was a mosaic of wolf tracks and trails. A wolf pack made up of adults, subadults and pups had criss-crossed the area, leaving barely a patch of snow without their sign.

Perhaps the wolves had challenged F109, or perhaps just one of them wandered too close to her kittens, or perhaps a pup felt like exploring on its own—trying to decipher the absolute pandemonium of tracks was beyond us. Whatever the circumstances, F109 captured and killed a pup born this year just above the chaos of wolf activity. By this time (November), wolf pups are sizable, their skulls larger than those of coyotes. We discovered the signs of struggle, the telltale blood in the snow, and the pup’s remains beneath a lonely subalpine fir: a pile of coal black fur, bone shards from the legs, and the skull, skinned but completely intact. F109 and her kittens had consumed the pup completely.

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Thus far, our research has supported exactly what everyone  expected: Wolves dominate mountain lions in most encounters. But, this recent exchange is particularly exciting. No longer can we say that wolves dominate mountain lions in all encounters. What circumstances led to F109 turning the tables, we do not know. Perhaps F109’s predecessors served as naïve intermediaries relearning to coexist with a dominant competitor, a species absent since 1926, when the last wolf was killed in Yellowstone National Park. Perhaps F109 is evidence that lions learn quickly and adapt, and that mountain lions will successfully coexist with wolves in the Yellowstone Ecosystem for generations to come.

Comments

  1. Grady Forbes
    Colorado
    April 2, 9:30 am

    Nameiz a wolf could not kill a cougar even if it tried. wolves have the speed advantage but the cougars have the strength advantage. So, unless it was a mother wolf, the cougar would win. Against an entire pack however, the combined force of the pack would overpower the mountain lion.

  2. Nameiz
    March 14, 1:18 pm

    Mark Elbroch, if you see my comment, I wanted to ask you some questions.
    What are the sizes of wolf and cougar paw prints in comparison?
    And have you ever come across any instance of a single wolf killing a cougar kitten/subadult/adult?

  3. Grady
    Colorado
    March 12, 5:33 pm

    1 on 1 cougar vs mother wolf, wolf would win.

  4. Grady Forbes
    Colorado
    February 25, 10:03 am

    Although both wolves and cougars are quite successful land predators, if you match up a pack of wolves with A mountain lion, well, the cougar doesn’t have a chance. 1 on 1 though, cougar would rip wolf to pieces.

  5. Grady Forbes
    Colorado
    February 19, 9:15 am

    Packs of wolves have been known to kill young cougars and will do so to eliminate future rivalry. Wolves prey upon cougars.

  6. Grady Forbes
    Colorado
    February 18, 5:16 pm

    Even a grizzly bear wouldn’t be a match for 25 wolves. Wolves are the most dangerous animals on our continent.

  7. Grady Forbes
    Colorado
    February 18, 5:14 pm

    Wolves, when in a pack, can rip a mountain lion in half. Because of this, dogs are greater predators than cats. 25 wolves vs 1 mountain lion, the mountain lion doesn’t have a chance.

  8. Cailey
    Albertville, Mn
    January 28, 3:13 pm

    Well, Cougars can only run/sprint for a short period of time where as wolfs can run fast for long distances of time. Meaning its easily possible for wolves to catch cougars.

  9. ATMK
    December 16, 2013, 12:49 pm

    In the USA, cougars are generally bigger than wolves, so a single wolf noticeably smaller than a cougar could never win by itself
    http://i53.photobucket.com/albums/g62/TigerQuoll/Cougarwolf.jpg

    • Mark Elbroch
      February 19, 7:28 am

      Greater Yellowstone wolves are quite heavy–averaging about 110 lbs, which is heavier than a typical female cougar (90-100 lbs) and much lighter than a typical male (150-160 lbs).

  10. ATMK
    somewhere
    December 16, 2013, 12:24 pm

    It is true that wolves chase cougars from kills all the time and kill them far more than the other way around, but it is not ‘rare’ for a cougar to stalk and kill a wolf. I have heard of over 8 records of single wolves killed by cougars. Sure it’s not a very typical occurence as many studies showed that cougars failed to exhibit reciprocal behavior for even a few years in one area (only certain areas mind you, and a killing could have occurred without their knowledge.)
    But still, I would not call a cougar killing a wolf (especially a pup, like this one, cougars have killed many pups) ‘rare’.

    Jamey, cougars are hard to catch. That’s why almost only wolf packs and pairs can get to them because a healthy cougar could generally make it up a tree long before it could be caught if it felt threatened. It’s the teamwork that helps cut the cougar off and/or turn it before it gets away.

  11. Lisa LeBlanc
    California
    December 9, 2013, 8:31 pm

    While my personal knowledge of both wolves and mountain lions is admittedly from books and documentaries on the subjects, I’d like to point up a smaller, micro-environment I have observed. It’s anecdotal, but illustrative:
    I was raised in a small town in Nevada, largely agricultural. Farms employed both dogs for property protection and feral cats for rodent control. Upon occasion, dogs would ‘pack up’ and run the fields at night, killing or mauling small livestock indiscriminately. And feral cats would often become victims. However, the incident I observed was a young female cat, with her first litter, who had taken refuge in a five-gallon bucket in a ‘thicket’ of old tree branches. Her kitten’s cries had alerted a pack, and the pack – five normally decent dogs – began tearing apart the thicket to get to the kittens. The mother had apparently heard the dogs, and came running from wherever she’d been. Without hesitation, she barreled into the fray, a tiny tornado of teeth and claws, and while she killed none of the dogs, she left each of them bloodied, deeply scarred and better educated.
    Anyone who has had occasion to handle a domestic cat on the scrap knows precisely the strength and agility contained in an eight to fifteen pound body. Now imagine that physical prowess in a body 10 times the weight and height.
    I have had domestic cats as companions all my life, and can attest to their remarkable capabilities. Given their common roots, it’s not beyond the realm of reasonable possibility that a cat the size and weight of a mountain lion – which can kill an animal the size and strength of a wild horse – could hold it’s own against a pack of wolves or deliver a lethal blow to a lone wolf. Add the maternal imperative, and you have, arguably, a formidable combination.

  12. Andy
    Sacramento
    December 6, 2013, 2:14 pm

    Here is an article I found that talks about what Liz Bradley had mentioned.

    Mountain Lions Kill 2 Radio-Collared Wolves in Montana
    By Chad Love

    You know that “Animal Face-Off” Animal Planet show where scientists, engineers and animal experts use sophisticated forensic science to determine the winner of epic but purely hypothetical battles between various large and toothsome megafauna?
    Bear versus tiger, croc versus hippo and that kind of stuff. Well, it appears the mountain lions of Montana are rendering the question of “mountain lion versus wolf” completely moot.

    From this story on nbcmontana.com:

    A state wolf specialist in Montana says mountain lions have killed two radio-collared wolves in the Bitterroot Valley since January. Liz Bradley of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said she found a dead wolf last week with skull puncture wounds that are a trademark of a mountain lion.
    She said the lion ate part of the wolf and covered the rest with debris. In January she found another dead wolf west of Lolo with the same wounds. Bradley said a deer carcass nearby indicates the two predators apparently fought. She said last year she found two other wolves with puncture wounds in their skulls.

    So are you Team Kitty or Team Canine? One-on-one, it appears that a wolf is no match for a mountain lion. Makes sense. Just too much tooth, muscle, quickness and claw for a single wolf to handle, but I’m guessing when it’s a case of one-on-pack, it’s a different story. Any other match-ups you’d like to see?

  13. BobMc
    United States
    December 6, 2013, 1:14 am

    I would characterize Puma concolor as stalk and pounce, as opposed to ‘ambush’ (while meaning no disrespect to the great cat researcher Maurice Hornocker). Normally, not wanting to equivocate on a small point of meaning, I bring it up as there is reputable research that seems to show that cougars show selectivity in prey selection. “Ambush’ seems to imply a passive waiting, as opposed to searching, stalking, and then launching an attack. Of course, the soon-to-be dinner being unaware, usually, would characterize the attack as an ambush.

    An interesting study is found here, showing that cats take prion-weakened deer at a higher rate than do hunters: http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/6/2/209.full

    Thank you for the interesting article. I greatly appreciate the work of Panthera, National Geographic, and other organizations that help us to better understand and to better protect that amazing family known as Felidae.

    • Mark Elbroch
      February 19, 7:32 am

      Thanks, Bob. Agreed– “stalk and pounce” seems very appropriate. And yes, a growing mountain of evidence now exists that suggests cougars are selecting prey rather than just hunting whatever they come across.

  14. DARK WEREWOLF
    Sacramento California
    December 5, 2013, 10:28 pm

    Are you sure that’s possible I know I love wolves but…..

  15. Cory H
    Utah
    December 4, 2013, 4:18 pm

    I think you are on to something Jamey. Those wolves are pretty tech saavy.

  16. arthur veitch
    grande cache, alberta
    December 4, 2013, 11:07 am

    I have been camera trapping cougars since 1998. Check out BBC camera trap competition 2013. Runners came across a cougar on a dead wolf. Days later, I went to the site and found the head and paws of the wolf. Cat had eaten the rest. The wolf’s skull had canine punctures. Alberta biologists have reported similar kills. Info was passed to Toni Ruth.

  17. jamey nastiuk
    ontario canada
    December 4, 2013, 10:56 am

    just thinking there`s no way wolves should be able to catch a cougar…maybe it`s the tracker u have around its neck that is making this possible????

    • Mark Elbroch
      February 19, 7:35 am

      Note that on our project, wolves have only caught and killed kittens. In rugged, rocky terrain or where there are sufficient trees, adult cougars can well defend themselves or retreat to safety.