National Geographic : 2013 Dec
mystery shrouding their lives is evaporating. Patrick Lendrum is a biologist with the Teton Cougar Project, a long-running study in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park region. At the project’s field office in Kelly, Lendrum downloads the latest data from several cougars fitted with satellite radio collars. With a couple of computer clicks he converts the numbers into dots on a detailed satellite image of the landscape, which allows him to study the cats’ movements almost in real time. To watch the animals themselves, he inserts memory cards retrieved from automatic cameras deployed at the most recent kill sites. Using natural light by day and infrared at night, the cameras tirelessly collect both photos and video—and all kinds of surprises. “Every day around here is a little like Christmas,” Lendrum says as his computer screen displays two adult males, natural rivals, each taking a turn feeding on an elk while the other rests a few yards away. “I’m not sure any- body’s seen that before. Our cougars keep doing things cougars aren’t supposed to do.” A female labeled F61 is another prime ex- ample. When she and her siblings were six months old, a cougar mother living nearby was shot, leaving her three kittens suddenly on their own. The next week, F61’s mother allowed the orphans to share a kill she and her own kittens were feeding on. As days passed, the mixed youngsters played and ate together at times and even groomed one another with rough-tongued licks. This was the first known kitten adoption in cougar society. Years later grown-up F61 and a neighboring female, F51, had kittens at about the same time. (F51’s were sired by one of the original orphans.) The two families frequently met, shared food, and traveled together through the spring. Even- tually F61 began rearing one of the other’s young as her own—the second case of adoption. On my first visit to the Tetons, in November 2012, both females had new litters. When I re- turned a few months later, F51 had lost two of her kittens to wolves. One of F61’s kittens seemed to have met the same end, judging from the un- varying location of its radio signal. Lendrum and his supervisor Mark Elbroch snowshoed toward the signal’s source and came on tracks of the cougar family crisscrossed by wolf trails. There was blood on the snow and mingled with the mother’s claw marks on a tree. Sometime after the wolf attack F61 killed a mule deer, so the scientists set up remote cameras near the carcass. As expected, the video footage verified that she had lost a kitten. It also showed an unexpected addition—an adult male feeding with the family. “ The assumption has been that males and fe- males associate to mate, period,” Elbroch said. “Yet I’m seeing video after video of adult males Perched atop dinner, this four-month-old kitten survived a wolf attack that killed two littermates, earning her the nickname bestowed by Teton Cougar Project researchers: Lucky. n National Geographic’s big Cats initiative is dedicated to halting the decline of wild felines around the world. to learn more about the projects we support, visit causeanuproar.org.