To Kill and Impregnate

'Even though the animal was dead, it was a real encounter to know there was a [mountain] lion there, to know this is where it fed on this animal," says Deborah Knapp, manager of the Anza-Borrego Institute. "The lions are very efficient in the way that they consume their prey. The only thing left over is the hair and the bottom parts of the leg with all four hooves. It was a mule deer, one of their favorite meals." On Sunday, January 15, and Sunday, January 22, wildlife field biologist Mike Puzzo will conduct "One Day in the Life of a Mountain Lion Researcher," a field seminar of the Anza-Borrego Institute. As part of the day-long course, Puzzo will demonstrate equipment used to track mountain lions and lead a group of six to the scene of a recent kill where a mountain lion devoured most of a mule deer.

"It requires about forty adult deer to sustain one adult mountain lion on an annual basis, [which is one deer] every seven to ten days," says Puzzo. "Mountain lions are ambush predators. They come up from behind [the prey] and grab the shoulder and bite down on the cervical vertebrae at the base of the skull. Death occurs in two or three seconds. [The lions] are very much a visual predator; their keenest sense is their sight," Puzzo explains. "They spot something and then make their way towards it. Once they get to within 30 or 40 feet, they explode on the animal, knock it down, and get that kill bite."

Adult female mountain lions weigh 75 to 90 pounds, and adult males range from 100 to 110 pounds. "They can kill something up to two to three times their size," Puzzo says. After successfully taking down a deer, the lions "go after the vital organs, because they're the most nutritious." Smaller animals, like bobcats and coyotes, "start in the anus or hindquarters, where it is more fleshy. Lions [are able to] go through the rib cage."

A mountain lion can consume around 100 pounds of meat in a week from one animal. "They pretty much just gorge themselves." The lion will feed on consecutive nights, covering its hard-earned meat with sticks, dirt, and weeds. "This is called 'cache-ing,'" explains Puzzo. During the day, the lions "kind of just hang around and try to retain as much energy as they can for when they have to hunt again."

Big cats tend to drag their dinner to a more ideal dining location. The deer carcass that Knapp visited was against a large boulder. "If I had to pick a scenic place to have my meal, that's where I would have put my deer," she says. "It was a strategic location; you could see everything around you." It can take six hours for a lion to finish feeding on a fox or small fawn and up to five days to consume an adult mule deer.

"These guys, Mike Puzzo and another biologist, Eric York, scour the mountains in the region," says Knapp. "When they see a lion coming back every day to the same spot, they know there's probably a kill [there]."

Where do these desert cats quench their thirst? According to Puzzo, "They get [most of] their water needs from the meat and blood they are consuming." Depending on the time of year, lions "probably need to drink [water] every day or every other day," drinking more frequently in the summer.

"Even the cats in very dry climates are able to find adequate water sources. They spend their lives traversing immense home ranges -- approximately 50 square miles for a female in a habitat similar to that of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and 200 square miles for a male in the same habitat. In the desert these home ranges may be four to five times as large." The size of a lion's range depends on resource availability, like food, water, and mating opportunities.

"We don't want people to see lions," says Knapp. "This is as close to where we can take them -- they see the tracks, the pattern of the kill. [Puzzo will] try to reconstruct what happened [and explain] the age of the lion, its behavior pattern, and what it's eating."

Mountain lions are not family animals. Offspring will typically venture off on their own when they are 15 months old. A mother will wean her cubs at eight weeks, at which point she begins to feed them with meat from her kills. "Mountian lion males go around, kill stuff, and look for females to impregnate," says Puzzo. "They may spend four days with a female, to impregnate her, then go find a deer to kill. They have no part in raising the offspring." -- Barbarella

"One Day in the Life of a Mountain Lion Researcher" Field Seminar (Participation is limited; please call for availability) Sunday, January 15, and Sunday, January 22 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park 587 Palm Canyon Drive Borrego Springs Cost: Suggested donation for members, $35; nonmembers, $45 (fees support mountain lion research) Info: 760-767-4063 or

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