Monitoring Pumas in Patagonia National Park
The puma monitoring program began in 2008 in what would become Patagonia National Park, with the support of NatGeo and the University of California–Davis. This program is one of the most long-term monitoring efforts in South America and has generated previously unknown information about the puma’s predation patterns, movements, territories, causes of death, and threats. This program has also supplied new information to support decision making regarding this species, especially in light of its bad reputation amongst livestock owners.
One of the program’s principal objectives was to determine the impact of the puma as a predator of both native and domestic herbivores, particularly in the case of a cattle farm transitioning to protected land. Through the capture and collaring of pumas, the program generated ecological information about the species’ diet, home ranges, territories, causes of death, and population density. This was the first information of its kind available in the Aysén region.
As an apex predator and a key part of the Patagonian ecosystem, the puma plays a crucial role. It is an architect of the ecosystem, activating a chain of ecological processes that affect the animals around it, given that the puma controls the population of wild herbivores and is one of the principal providers of carrion for a wide variety of species, including Andean condors, crested caracaras, foxes, armadillos, and others.
In 2020, we teamed up with Conaf, Chile’s National Forest Corporation and a part of the Chilean government, on a study that allowed us to access relevant information about the interactions between pumas and visitors in the public access areas of Patagonia National Park, specifically in the Chacabuco Valley. This monitoring effort included the installation of 17 camera traps in various public access areas in the park, along with frequent observation of the puma. A range of puma behaviors were observed: some were tame and relaxed, while others fled after spotting humans.
In addition, these images have made it possible to detect a social structure amongst pumas of different ages: young adult males, females with their young, and dominant adult males, which indicates the health of the park’s ecosystems. The observations also showed that the national park trails are commonly used not only by visitors but also by wildlife, including pumas, foxes, wild cats, chingues (Molina’s hog-nosed skunk), armadillos, wild rodents, thrushes, loicas (long-tailed meadowlarks), and some exotic species, including hares and minks.
To date, 33 pumas have been collared with the program’s radio collars, which has allowed us to estimate a population density of 1.4 pumas per 10,000 acres, and a total of 25 to 30 adult pumas in the Chacabuco Valley. All this information has been obtained through the use of the collaring technology, along with the work of rangers and the program team’s direct observations on the ground.
This program seeks to contribute to the design of future observation programs and to establish puma behavior baselines. It also seeks to inform the regulation of public use of wild space and the public’s interactions with wild species in general, and pumas in particular. Finally, the program aims to promote tolerance and public awareness of apex predators and proper wildlife sighting protocols in national parks, fostering good tourism practices that will permit these parks to both support the conservation of the species and allow for a satisfactory recreation and tourism experience.
In Chile, the puma is the largest feline among the five recorded feline species, though its size and weight vary according to subspecies and geographic area. In the south-central area, pumas generally do not exceed roughly 75–85 pounds in weight or 5 feet in total length, while in Aysén and Magallanes, individuals of more than 220 pounds and more than 8 feet in length have been captured.
The puma has a general uniform coloration throughout its body, with a coat that varies from shades of gray to reddish-gray, which highlight the whitish coloring around its mouth. The young have spots on the body that persist up to three months of age.
Distribution and habitat
The puma is present in almost the entire American continent, from Alaska and northern Canada (the Yukon), to the south of Chile and Argentina (the Strait of Magellan). It covers a wide range of habitats, from desert climates, to tropical rainforests, to cold coniferous forests. It also covers a wide range of altitudes, from sea level to 19,000 feet above sea level in the Andes. In Chile, the puma is found in mountain ranges, forests, steppe, scrub, and pampas, from Arica to the Magallanes region.
The life expectancy of pumas in the wild is 8 to 10 years, though in captivity, pumas can live for up to 20 years. Pumas do not have natural predators, so they typically die from accidents, disability, disease, hunger, and territorial disputes with other pumas.
The puma is a solitary and territorial hunter. This solitary behavior is only interrupted when the female goes into heat, which can occur twice a year. The gestation period for a puma is three months, with litters of two to four cubs.
When the cubs reach 18 to 24 months, the family separates and the young pumas disperse in search of their own territory. They typically settle more than 60 miles away from their family of origin for females, and more than 200 miles away for males.
Main food sources
As the apex predator in Chile’s wild food chain, the puma hunts and feeds on prey of various sizes, including other carnivorous animals. The puma’s diet varies widely throughout Chile, according to the availability of prey. In the country’s southernmost region, the puma’s diet mainly consists of the guanaco and also the exotic hare, as well as other carnivores, such as chingues (Molina’s hog-nosed skunk) and foxes. Pumas also consume domestic livestock, such as goats, sheep, and cattle.
The main threats facing the puma are intensive hunting, fragmentation, and loss of habitat, which has affected the availability of the puma’s sources of food, shelter, and territory.
Meanwhile, the puma is also considered a threat to livestock, which has led to its harassment and poaching. Yet despite this reputation, and the perception amongst farmers that wild carnivores are responsible for losses in livestock, diet analysis showed that feral and/or domestic dogs consume a larger portion of livestock than native carnivorous species like the puma do.