It isn’t a coincidence that there are a number of small mounds of leaves, twigs and soil grouped in a clearing surrounded by tall redwood trees and oaks. They’re not random; the piles, called community scrapes, were intentionally made by mountain lions. These unobtrusive clumps of forest detritus can be vital for mountain lions to communicate with each other without face-to-face confrontations that can turn deadly. Lions are masters at social distancing while keeping the lines of communication open. Our recent attempts at social distancing pale in contrast to social distancing mountain lion style.
Kiosks, sign posts and community scrapes have a lot in common; they communicate important information from the posters to the community without the necessity of physical interaction. The location the pumas choose for their communication center isn’t random either. They strategically pick specific spots in the forest to convey messages to other pumas who patrol and visit the area. It also isn’t a coincidence that we perfectly aimed one of the Bay Area Puma Project’s trail cameras to record the puma action at this special place.
Anatomy of a mountain lion scrape
Watching videos of mountain lions scraping is reminiscent of watching movies in slow motion. The puma’s back legs and feet slowly and deliberately rake leaves, soil and twigs into small piles on one side of bared earth. Then they squat and either defecate or urinate on top of them. Vital information is conveyed about the scraper from the excrement and possibly through scent that is deposited from the underside of paws.
Location, location, location
Community scrapes are often located in places where mountain lion territories overlap and at shared borders. Scrapes are multi-functional; they warn other lions away, time stamp visits and help attract mates. This behavior is most often seen from male pumas. Because of urbanization, the available wild spaces are shrinking and the rules are changing. The size of territories are decreasing and becoming substantially fragmented by highways, residential development and other structures.
My guess is that this is affecting wildlife behaviors. Although, I haven’t found a published study about it, it’s possible that the local mountain lions are being forced to time share and overlap more of their territories with their puma neighbors than they have in the past. In order to avoid unpleasant encounters with each other, pumas may be making and using community scrapes more. Scrapes aren’t just found grouped together; pumas will also scrape on trails that they travel on.
Although many of the adult lions who visit the site scrape, the more dominant male often scrapes regularly. Generally, juveniles will check out the scrapes but will not leave their calling cards—it’s in their best interests not to announce their presence to unfriendly resident adult males.
Prime directive of male pumas
Pumas, especially males, don’t practice diplomacy: encounters often lead to serious injuries and death. Because the prime survival directive of adult males is to reproduce and hunt, they habitually have a zero-tolerance policy for others of the same sex. In addition to food, males compete for a limited number of females who are in estrus at any given time. Not surprisingly, male mountain lion territories can overlap and include those of a small number of females—pivotal spots for the boys to advertise their availability for mating by scraping.
Prime directive of female pumas
Female mountain lions have different agendas than the males. Theirs is to survive, reproduce and care for their offspring until they are equipped enough to survive on their own. Usually, young mountain lions leave their mums to search for their own territories when they’re between 18 months and two years old. All of mom’s energy and intention goes into raising those precious kittens—she has no interest in boyfriends and usually won’t go into estrus until they disperse, unless a determined male kills her young with the sole intention of having her return to estrus and be ready to mate again.
Mountain lions looking for dates
Normally, after the youngsters leave their mums, females go into estrus and become obsessed with finding boyfriends. And, adult male pumas are open to the idea. It’s an all-consuming occupation. The girls visit the community scrapes, checking out the messages left by neighborhood and transient lions. They are seeking out the strongest males to mate with. Generally, the most successful boys are chosen. They are the ones who scrape the most frequently, depositing pheromones through their excrement on the scrapes. The girls readily ID them through a scenting process called the flehmen response. All felids, including our household cat companions have olfactory organs known as the vomeronasal organ located in the roofs of their mouths. Felids make a very distinctive face when they’re taking in the scent—their mouths partly open and their nose wrinkles.
It’s not just the boys who scrape, girls will too occasionally. Although they sometimes make their own fresh scrapes, when canvassing for boyfriends, they may urinate on the top of scrapes made by males who are candidates for mating. In addition to broadcasting their availability, it also helps to deter competitors. Of course they also advertise for romantic liaisons through calling.
The lines of communication are open
Although mountain lions are highly territorial and spend most of their lives alone, they still need each other to survive. For their survival as well as the species, it’s imperative that the lines of communication are open with other pumas in the hood as well as those who are passing through. Community scrapes work well—they provide ways for mountain lions to advertise for mates, delineate territories and time stamp their visits without direct confrontations.*
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, while learning how urbanization is affecting the 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 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 others.
Join Marilyn for lively discussions about all things feline on her Facebook page.
*The following resources were used extensively in writing this article:
Some of the visuals that are included here are courtesy of Felidae Conservation Fund. Please check out Felidae’s work at www.felidaefund.org.
Hornocker and Negri. Cougar Ecology & Conservation. 2010. The University of Chicago Press
Maximilian L. Allen, Heiko U. Wittmer, Paul Houghtaling, Justine Smith, L. Mark Elbroch, Christopher C. Wilmers. The Role of Scent Marking in Mate Selection by Female Pumas (Puma concolor). https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0139087 October 21, 2015.
Bart J. Harmsen, Rebecca J. Foster, Said M. Gutierrez, Silverio Y. Marin, C. Patrick Doncaster. Scrape-marking behavior of jaguars (Panthera onca) and pumas (Puma concolor). https://academic.oup.com/jmammal/article/91/5/1225/902019 Journal of Mammalogy, Volume 91, Issue 5, 15 October 2010
Maximilian L. Allen a,∗ , Heiko U. Wittmer and Christopher C. Wilmers. Puma communication behaviours: understanding functional use and variation among sex and age classes. Behavior Brill, December 30, 2013