Like your pet cat, pumas are peculiar about where they sleep

January 1, 2018, 3 p.m.
sleeping mountain lion
Photo: Kari K/Shutterstock

It's well-known that house cats sleep wherever they want, however they want — and often. They have a penchant for pouring themselves into cozy alcoves, perching atop important papers or disappearing into wormholes under furniture.

Pet cats share many of these idiosyncrasies with their wild relatives, which also tend to be catnap connoisseurs. And beyond the amusement of watching domestic cats snooze around the house, understanding the various criteria of a good catnap may also help researchers protect vulnerable felines that are rapidly losing habitat in the wild.

mountain lion sleeping on rocks A precarious napping spot can protect pumas from less nimble enemies, like bears or wolves. (Photo: wplynn/Flickr)

That's the idea behind a recent study, published in the journal PeerJ, that examined the bed-site preferences of wild mountain lions, also known as pumas or cougars. The study was part of Panthera's Teton Cougar Project (TCP), which has already shed valuable light on other puma puzzles, from their ecological effects to their secret social lives.

"Despite the fact that scientists know a lot about the relationships between predators and their prey, we know surprisingly little about the sleeping habits of large predators, especially cryptic carnivores like pumas," writes TCP member Anna Kusler, a graduate researcher at Pace University, in a blog post about the findings. Pumas gravitate to hidden bed sites where it would be hard for a competitor to see them, Kusler says, noting that pumas face more danger in their natural habitats than many people realize.

sleeping mountain lion, aka puma or cougar Warmth, secrecy and escape routes are key factors when a puma needs some rest. (Photo: Tony Campbell/Shutterstock)

"Even though most of us probably think of pumas as top predators with little to fear, that's not always the case," Kusler adds. "In North America, much larger grizzly and black bears steal their hard-earned kills. Wolves, as pack animals, steal their kills AND kill them and their kittens." Pumas need to find safe sleeping spots, she explains, where it's unlikely other predators can harm them.

From 2012 to 2016, TCP researchers used GPS collars to identify about 600 puma bed sites, then carefully studied each one.

Pumas may not have many opportunities to curl up inside a mixing bowl or behind a sofa, but they do have comparable quirks about where they sleep. "We often found puma beds tucked underneath the low-lying boughs of a tree, or against the rugged face of an inaccessible cliff," Kusler writes. "They seem to prefer steep, rugged terrain, like cliff bands and boulder fields."

Puma feet have a unique bone structure that helps them grip rocks and logs more easily than bears or wolves can, Kusler explains, so a precarious bed site can offer an escape advantage if a competitor tries to sneak up mid-nap. You'll probably never see a puma sleep in an open field, she adds, as they typically bed down where trees or other landscape features provide a quick escape.

Warmth is also an important factor in bed-site selection, especially during winter. "So, like your housecat loves to sleep in the sunny warmth of a windowsill, pumas like to maximize their exposure to the sun's rays," Kusler writes. "That meant many bed sites were on south-facing slopes, where the warmth from the sun is strongest."

sleeping mountain lion, aka puma or cougar A wild puma naps in a bathroom at Chatsworth Nature Preserve in California. (Photo: U.S. National Park Service/Flickr)

This research highlights some nuances of habitat loss that can be easy to overlook. When trying to protect large predators like pumas, many people — including researchers — focus on the availability of prey. That is certainly important, Kusler acknowledges, but it's only part of the picture. "Because the best hunting habitats are not necessarily the safest places to sleep," she explains, "a puma must find a home range that can provide both types of environment."

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