Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Puma Scrapes

Puma delicately poses on huge paws at the Dipper Ranch night of October 4, 2015.   
When I lived in Florida, we called them panthers. I never saw a Florida panther, but in the 1980's, there were only about 30 Florida panthers left and I didn't know much about Puma concolor then. Officially, they are called mountain lions in California, and cougars seems to be the most popular name in other western states. These days, I like to use the word puma because it's short.

Max Allen, a researcher with Santa Cruz Pumas Project at the University of California Santa Cruz, posted an interesting piece called How Pumas Communicate Through Scent Marking on the National Geographic Wild Cats blog. In the 15+ years I've worked outdoors in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I've seen four pumas.  But I've seen lots of puma sign now that I know what to look for: scat, tracks, scrapes, kills and scratching logs.

An adult and then a juvenile puma pass by a wildlife camera near a pond on the Dipper Ranch on June 25, 2013. The juvenile (right) is shorter and has spots that show up in the camera lighting. This is probably the same pair of pumas I saw on the ranch on July 7, 2013.     
The first puma I saw was high up in a black oak tree sleeping off a meal at Los Trancos Open Space Preserve in 2010 (Lion About).  In 2013, I saw an adult puma and her juvenile as I was walking back to the Dipper Ranch house.  Five seconds of astonishment after weeks of clues. In October this year as I was opening the front gate at 7:30 on a foggy morning, I saw something in the pasture below me. A four-legged tan critter blending in with the dry grass. No mule ears sticking up, that's not a deer, I thought as I reached for binoculars.

A puma sits down and watches me open the squeaky gate, October 6, 2015.   
Magnified through the binoculars, it was a puma looking at me from 700 feet away. Short face, long tail draped on the ground, rounded ears. Overall, it appeared to be a petite puma. Not that I've seen many pumas with my own eyes, but I have seen hundreds of photos of pumas from wildlife cameras we've set up on the Dipper Ranch and other preserves. I watched it. It sat down and watched me. I took a blurry photo. Since the puma didn't seem to be going anywhere, I turned the car around and quickly drove down to the house to grab my long lens.

In three minutes when I was back at the gate, the puma had moved farther downhill to the corner of the pasture and was standing over a dried-up carcass (Big Red is Down). After a few sniffs of the carcass, the puma melted under the fence, gave a high rough call, and slipped into the forest. As I was asking myself Did I really hear that? Did I really see that?, I realized I forgot to attach my long lens and take a better photo.  But no matter, I probably already had a photo of that very puma.

October 4, 2015 - A scat pile with at least three visits. The brown-red chunky scats (1 cm wide) on the top and one in the lower left are probably gray fox because of the orange persimmon skin and seeds in them. The long scat with the pointed end on the left is possibly bobcat (11 cm long, 1.5 cm w). The twisted dark grey chunks on the right are possibly coyote.   
We had checked wildlife cameras on the Dipper Ranch two days earlier. After swapping out batteries and changing the memory card on one camera, we went uphill on the usual loop to check the second camera and found piles of scat. Scat of different sizes propped on top of each other indicating one species after another had left their calling cards. Then we saw cat tracks. With heel pads at 4.5 to 5 cm wide, they weren't huge tracks but they were too big to be bobcats. The tracks pointed downhill and we followed them backwards for 1/2 mile as we continued up the dusty ranch road. The toe impressions had started to fill with small dirt particles so we guessed the tracks were a few days old.

October 4, 2015 - Cat tracks with toes pointing towards my hand - toes offset, heel pad has two lobes on top and three on the bottom. With a heel pad that is 4.5 to 5 cm wide, this is too big to be bobcat and is a smaller size puma. (Elbroch)   
When we got back to the house and I checked the memory cards from the wildlife cameras, I realized we were wrong. Thirteen hours earlier, a slim-looking puma showed up on the lower wildlife camera (top photo on this post), so those tracks were less than a day old. This is probably the same puma I saw two days later at the gate, and the one that showed up at another camera at an old spring box on the Dipper Ranch in another three days. When a puma hangs out in the same area for several days, there's a good chance it has a deer carcass stashed nearby.

A smaller size puma pauses while drinking at the Newt Spring, October 9, 2015.   
Puma scrapes are when a puma scratches the ground with its feet and leaves a mound of dirt and maybe some leaves or tossed grass. I always wondered whether it was with the front or rear feet but Max's video makes it obvious. The scrape may or may not cover a fresh scat, but the puma usually sprays the pile of dirt with urine as an olfactory signal to other pumas. Max's research indicates that pumas use the scrape as a visual signal for other pumas to stop and sniff the scented pile full of rich clues about which individual puma had recently passed that way and even its physical condition such as whether a female puma is ready for breeding.

A puma passes the wildlife camera on March 9, 2013.   
On March 11, 2013, we find a scrape nearby even showing the outline of toes. 
We've observed puma scrapes occurring at different frequencies at the Dipper Ranch. In March and April 2013, we were frequently seeing scrapes near a carcass and also along wildlife trails leading to the carcass. Every few weeks when we checked the wildlife cameras, we would see new scrapes along our route. During that period, we also got photos of at least three pumas on the property:  a large male with a grizzled forehead, and a female with a juvenile (probably the same female/juvenile I saw for five seconds in midsummer 2013). These three were probably signaling each other with the scrape piles. I'm not sure what they were saying.

"I'll be back by dark" or "Leave some hindquarters for me."

Between a carcass and the nearest source of water, we find two scrapes on March 15, 2013. The scrape on the right has two sets of scat - above is scat full of hair; below is dark, oily scat indicating a recent meal of organs.   
The night before, this puma follows the same wildlife path on which we found the above scrapes.
Those are the big paws that make the scrape marks.  Photo by Random Truth.   
Pumas continue to visit the carcass and leave scrape marks nearby for many days.
This scrape found on March 26, 2013 at nearly the same location as the two above.   
In December 2014, there was a flush of many scrapes again and the photos on nearby wildlife cameras before and afterwards showed a bump in puma traffic. When 2 pumas showed up on the camera one night, that suggested what all the scraping and messaging was about.

Two scrapes found at a trail intersection on the Dipper Ranch on December 9, 2014.
Dark scat is sticking out of scrape on right.   
After brushing aside the mound behind a third scrape nearby, we find deer hair and a deer hoof dissolving out of a scat.   
On December 22, 2014 two adult pumas pass a wildlife camera near the same trail junction.
Probably adult male and female pumas getting together for a few days of breeding.   
As cam trappers, we sometimes place a scent in front of a wildlife camera to get the animals to pause and sniff thus spending a few more seconds in view so that the camera can get more and better focused photographs, possibly photos that enable us to not only identify the species of the visitor but also age and health. If we're lucky, a good shot may show a distinct mark like an ear cut that will help us identify that individual when they return and that way we can start to interpret behavior and how many pumas are visiting an area.

Each foot leaves a scrape mark 8 cm wide. Above Peter's Creek, April 6, 2013.   
A large puma track above Peter's Creek on April 23, 2013.   
A puma scrape on the north side of Peter's Creek, March 10, 2014.   
Puma tracks on the other side of Peter's Creek on June 16, 2014. This could be the same puma which left the scrape marks above, or the creek could from a loose boundary between two pumas' territories.  
While some cam trappers use strong commercial scents, I keep things simple. I might crush catnip, lemongrass or eggshells and place them in front of the camera. On my October cam check, I scooped some grey fox scat and poop from Cat King Cole and Mango, our house cats, into a baggy, and emptied them out in front of a camera.  When I checked that camera set recently, it was a quiet month with no curious animals sniffing or rolling in the fox-house cat poop pile.

 Two scrapes showing signs of aging: the mound of leaves at the back has started to collapse and the soil is not moist. Found on December 2, 2015.     
Could those old scrape marks been left by this puma passing nearby on October 26, 2015 at 10 am?     
Or by this puma passing nearby on November 12, 2015 at 5 pm?   
Max Allen's research suggests that we should make our own scrapes before we lay down scent at camera traps. Since I've read his article, I've practiced a few times while poking around in the preserves.  Scratch, scratch with my boots. I don't make nearly as distinct of a pile as those big puma paws. But I will keep practicing so that when I'm checking cams again in a few weeks, I'll try it out. Scratch, scratch, apply scent.  She-who-smells-like-house-cats has been here.

Tracks are the most reliable sign of pumas especially if you measure them.   
In this blog post, I've shared lots of photos of puma scrapes and tracks to help you identify them.  I also have photos of puma scratching logs and kills, and of bobcat tracks, scat and scrapes, but I will leave those until another time. Humans mostly notice signs by visual clues, and are pretty much oblivious to the rich olfactory signs that are left by many wildlife. Fortunately, because pumas use both, if you learn to identify their scrapes, you can detect their passage, and with other clues maybe  also interpret behavior such as feeding and breeding.
Max Allen, How Pumas Communicate by Scent Marking, National Geographic Cat Watch, accessed December 28, 2015, http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2015/10/22/how-pumas-communicate-through-scent-marking/

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), PLOS, October 21, 2015.

Mark Elbroch, Mammal Tracks and Signs, Stackpole Books, 2003:
     cougar pad widths: 4 - 7.3 cm
     bobcat pad widths: 2.5 - 4 cm


  1. Hi Cindy, love this post -- is there a way to access larger versions of these photos?

  2. Thanks, Jane. You can click each photo to view a larger version. Then you can right-click the photo and download to view in larger formats or even print. I encourage anyone to copy my photos for noncommercial use as long as they credit this blogsite (see Creative Commons licensing in right column of blog). I am starting to include small watermarks on photos so that instantly covers the crediting.

  3. Maybe it's just me -- when I click on some photos (like 9), the image in the slideshow isn't larger.

    1. Yah, you're right, #9 is a collage. I tried collages for the first time on this post (too many photos to share!) and they don't expand. I'll send them to you. One day I am going to get all these photos on a photo-sharing site so more people can use them. Anybody have recommendations on how to link photos from a blogger site to a photo sharing site?

  4. As always, I learn something when reading the "Dipper Ranch" that I can use when on the trail.

    Thanks and Happy New Year!

    1. Ahhh, thanks Dale. Helping people learn about the outdoors is a gold star feeling to me.

  5. Fascinating. I'll be on the lookout for scrapes now that I know what to look for.


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