Predators including bobcats, mountain lions and coyotes who don’t want to share resources as well as those who do, are adept at communicating their intentions through scent marking—to their own as well as other species. And often, they scent mark on top of each other’s mark.
It’s not always in the best interests for predators to have unintended encounters with other predators. Meetings can end badly with individuals being hurt and sometimes killed. Predators need ways to define territories, identify family members as well as advertise for mates. And, these communication systems have to work remotely. The messages need to be clear for minutes, hours, sometimes days after being strategically placed.
Sharing a limited area
The little canyon is only 93 acres. Houses at the rim and two busy roads surround the wild area. One of the roads separates the canyon from an expansive, natural habitat that is enclosed by fences. Although predators and ungulates make regular forays back and forth across the road, wildlife has to adjust their behaviors in order to share the limited area in the canyon.
Predators communicate through scent marking
Scent marking is an effective form of communication, broadcasting a variety of messages including when individuals patrol the trail. It helps predators, including bobcats, coyotes and an occasional mountain lion, time share the path with a minimum of unplanned encounters. They mark by spraying, urinating, defecating and scraping in prominent spots. In addition to excrement, felids distribute their scent by scratching objects, face rubbing and head butting.
Scent marking is similar to leaving time-stamped calling cards. Scent glands release pheromones that other animals detect. They broadcast dossiers of information about the markers along with their intentions. In addition to delineating territories, scent identifies individuals, their health, sex, and whether they’re ready to rendezvous with a member of the opposite sex. The freshness of the mark time stamps the visit.
One of our cameras is positioned to record predators marking at the same site. The wildlife cam is facing a popular wildlife intersection that is frequently visited by multiple species. It captures videos of coyotes, bobcats and domestic dogs sniffing the spot and then leaving their individual calling cards that are detected by the next animal making his/her rounds. Most predators spend time checking the marked spot, but not all leave calling cards.
The camera repeatedly catches the same coyote pair on patrol. They take turns urinating in the same spot. Hours later, a solitary coyote usually checks out the smell and then hurries up the path without marking. We’ve seen the same behavior from bobcats.
Four to five bobcats frequent the intersection. One male and a female with her two kittens are regularly recorded. The male is typically solitary, whereas the female is often in the company of her kittens, unless she’s hunting. We’ve seen the kittens develop from when they were a couple of months old. The larger kitten has recently become interested in the marked spot. Although he (we are assuming this is a male) hasn’t left his calling card, he thoroughly checks out the scents.
It’s not just the wild animals who are fascinated with the virtual sign post. The trail is popular with people and their dogs. The camera documents dogs sniffing and then urinating over the marks left by their wild coyote cousins and bobcats. People who walk their dogs daily on the trail probably don’t think about why their dogs choose that particular spot to mark.
The scent markings also serve as alerts for animals down the food chain who are potential meals. Even with built-in artillery, this skunk doesn’t stay long. He takes a whiff and makes a quick getaway.
Our sweet companion cats engage in many of the same instinctual behaviors that their wild felid cousins do. Scent is important to them as well—they mark for the same reasons and ways their cousins do. In addition to facial rubs, head butting and scratching objects, whole domestic and feral cats will mark with urine and feces (spaying and neutering household cats usually stops them from marking with excreta).
Natural habitats are shrinking. Highways cut through territories, buildings encroach on wild areas. Urbanization has greatly reduced the wild lands that are the homes for many animal species. In order to survive, animals must adjust to the shrinking lands. Predators who are territorial, need to share the land—scent marking is one of the effective ways that they can share the same space, but not necessarily at the same time.
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