The highly-tuned nose of a talented scent dog found mountain lion latrines at the rim of the canyon. Latrines are spots where pumas, often family groups, will repeatedly defecate; they are the mountain lion equivalent of toilets, except instead of flushing, pumas cover their excrement in these locations. But, lions don’t arbitrarily choose places for their latrines—they aptly locate them between fresh kills and sleeping areas.
FelidaeFund/Bay Area Puma Project is using non-invasive methods to collect mountain lion scat for research. The excrement is used for monitoring the health and genetics of the local puma populations. Although people do stumble across puma scat and occasionally latrines, we aren’t very efficient or successful at finding them. And, sometimes coyote or another meso-predator’s scat is mistaken as having been left behind by a puma. Because trained scent dogs are more successful and much faster at finding scat then humans are, FelidaeFund recruited Finn, a smart working dog, along with her well-trained handler, Michelle for the job. Watching the team work was impressive.
When Finn first detected the lion’s scent next to my wildlife camera at the bottom of the canyon she sprinted straight up the steep 85 degree incline, through sticky brush and tall grass until she found her prize—puma poop. The two human members of the team followed close behind her. Not wanting to slow everyone down, I waited below, my eyes fixated on my phone; waiting impatiently for texts about what the dog had found. Finn’s sensitive nose led the team to a welcomed find—mountain lion latrines.
Mountain lion latrines
Mountain lion latrines are often found near puma kills, sometimes adjacent to a trail and/or under brush. Although, they can be within 15 feet or so from the carcass, they can also be located further away1. Latrines can contain between 1-5 scats, but it varies widely; sometimes lions will defecate in one place several times or they’ll use it only once and then move on to another spot. According to the Mountain Lion Foundation the latrines vary in size and in mound height. After defecating in the latrines, lions will usually cover the excrement with forest detritus—this is one of the few circumstances when pumas cover2. Possibly, covering the excrement near kills minimizes the possibility of unwelcomed predators, including other pumas, coyotes and bobcats from detecting the smell, being drawn to the fresh carcasses and helping themselves to free meals.3
The locations of mountain lion latrines are not arbitrary. Pumas don’t sit down to a meal and eat the whole thing in one sitting; they consume their prey in multiple feedings. Because a single deer carcass can feed a puma for a few days to a week, it’s practical for lions to make latrines close to the carcass. Covering them reduces the smell factor.4
The scat that Finn triumphantly tracked down contains genetic material as well as other valuable components that provide insights about the health of the individual who produced it. DNA analysis of the canyon scat coupled with a larger sample base collected from other Bay Area locations will reveal information about stress levels of the local lions and the amount of inbreeding that is occurring because of fragmented, shrinking habitats and blocked wildlife corridors. Collectively, the information will help establish the necessity of building wildlife crossings over and under the highways to encourage genetic diversity within the wildlife populations.
Health check ups
The scat Finn tracked down also provides details about the canyon mountain lions health and the general health of the ecosystem. It reveals the individuals’ menus, if they’re mostly consuming deer or relying on other prey animals for nourishment. Analysis will also identify the types of parasites and pathogens that are harbored in the puma’s systems as well as the presence of deadly second generation rodenticides. Thanks to Finn, collecting puma scat in the canyon was easy.
Dog with a job
Finn is a working dog. She has a highly tuned sense of smell and is blessed with millions more olfactory receptors then we sensory deprived humans possess. Having roughly 300 million olfactory receptors, her scenting capability is around 40 times more acute than ours. Because of her talented nose, she is trained to detect specific scents, including scat from a variety of animal species and even scents from a wide range of invasive plants. Finn and her person work for Working Dogs for Conservation and are excellent at their jobs.
Using force free methods, a diverse species of animals, including dogs, horses, pigs and cats can be trained to be successful scent animals5. The training process is relatively straight forward and includes drilling holes in sturdy, identical containers. Samples of objects that carry the scent the animal in training is being taught to recognize are put in a few of the containers, while the remaining are filled with other unrelated scents. When the animal trainee stops and sniffs at the container with the right scent, she’s reinforced. Clicker training is a fun, force free method commonly used to train animals.
Finn is very good at her job. After her nose led her to the puma poop, she sat down and excitedly wagged her tail. Of course, she was immediately reinforced with a treat for each triumphant success.
Who would think that puma poop plays such an important role in finding out about the health of the local puma population as well as other animals in the eco-system? The scat that Finn tracked down will provide wildlife researchers and conservationists with important genetic and health insights about the effects of urbanization. Analysis of the scat from the canyon as well as from other locations in the area will hopefully contribute to projects that unblock wildlife corridors and create wildlife crossings under and over highways.
1, 3, 4. Elbroch, M., Kresky, M., Evans, J. 2012. Field Guide to Animal Tracks and Scat of California. University of California Press. pp 104, 163.
2. Pumas use their excrement to mark their territories as well as broadcast information about themselves.
5.Kat Donald. 2022, April. The Nose Knows (Olfactory Enrichment for All!), presentation for Animal Behavior Management Alliance (ABMA)
6. Thank you Zara McDonald for fact checking
Marilyn is a certified cat behavior consultant (The Cat Coach, LLC). Not surprisingly, she’s fascinated by feline behaviors. This started with household cats and then after witnessing a puma being killed a few blocks from her home in the suburbs, expanded to include local mountain lions and bobcats. A few years after the tragedy, she joined the Bay Area Puma Project/Felidae Conservation Fund, maintaining trail cameras, writing and helping wherever she can. Her focus is on how urbanization is affecting apex predators’ behaviors.
She is also an author and educator. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior issues through clicker training, environmental changes as well as other positive reinforcement techniques. She gives presentations throughout the United States as well as writes columns and articles for a variety of venues. She is also frequently interviewed for podcasts, print and on line publications. Additionally Marilyn is a frequent guest on television and radio and has appeared, along with her Bengals and Savannah Cat on Animal Planet, CBS, ABC, KGO and other stations.
Join Marilyn for lively discussions about all things feline on her Facebook page.