Pumas maintain relationships with an astounding 485 living species—likely representing the most diverse number of relationships recorded for any carnivore in the world—and they play a critical role in keeping ecosystems healthy and resilient, according to a new report from Defenders and Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization.
Published in Mammal Review, the research documented interactions with species, from elk and foxes to fish and beetles. Scientists hope the study will bring support for more investment in the protection and restoration of puma habitats and populations, as well as greater public appreciation for how the species benefits human and wildlife communities across its range.
“Protecting this animal is supported by the science, and this study should invite further dialog among government agencies and stakeholders,” says Christian Hunt, Defenders’ Southeast representative, who is working to encourage the expansion of the Florida panther, a puma subspecies, in the Southeast. Currently, this endangered big cat survives almost exclusively in south Florida.
Scientists identified 162 studies published between 1950 and 2020 that focused on puma interactions and their impact on ecosystems. The study identified 203 species as puma prey, 281 species that feed on their prey and 12 species as competitors. It also found the presence of pumas has a “fear effect” on 40 species, frightening white-tailed deer and other herbivores, for example, from certain landscapes, preventing them from overgrazing plant communities.
Other ecosystem services provided by pumas include feeding on invasive species, like feral hogs, and other prey that could otherwise cause vehicle collisions like deer. For example, the recolonization of pumas in South Dakota is estimated to have reduced deer-vehicle collision costs by over $1 million. A recolonization of the eastern U.S. by pumas could reduce deer-vehicle collisions by 22% over 30 years, averting 21,400 human injuries, 155 human fatalities and over $2 billion in costs. Scientists also estimate that pumas contribute more than 3 million pounds of meat per day to scavenger communities across North and South America.
Although pumas range across 28 countries in the Americas, they are poorly understood. The species is elusive and often mischaracterized, leading to persecution and fueling human-puma conflict. In the U.S., pumas are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, road mortality and disease. Some populations are further impacted by legal hunting. In Latin America, the species faces the same threats, along with illegal hunting, which is generally retaliatory killing by ranchers over livestock and loss of prey. “Hopefully this knowledge helps to demonstrate the importance of conserving pumas because so many other species depend on and benefit from their presence—including us,” says Hunt.