Monday, October 26, 2009

Roadkill Cougar

We see them every day, but how sad it is to witness a creature prone, stiff, or bloated as we pass by in our vehicles. A audible groan can be heard throughout the car if one is clearly someone pet, or how we feel even worse if it is our own vehicle which accidentally hits a creature. Recent posts by Camera Trap Codger, and Journals of an Amateur Naturalist have discussed roadkill otters as sad victims of highway casualty. In the east especially, the top animals to end up as roadkill are: Raccoons, Deer, Skunks, Opossum, Dogs, Cats, Groundhog, and Squirrels.

On a Sunday morning I sadly witnessed an unusual creature in the center line. A beautiful Gray Fox was lying on the black asphalt, obviously not alive anymore. The white and gray face, gray and rusty color of the body strikingly different than the surrounding tar. I was upset as I could only think of the amazing encounter I had with a gray fox earlier in the year, and hope it wasn't the same animal now sprawled in the lane. Torn between the horror of the scene and the curiosity to examine the beautiful animal closer, Dad refused my idea to photograph it. I have often wracked my head in thought to how the road could be altered to lessen the occurrence of roadkill, for the safety of both humans and animals, but have yet to think of a viable solution.

Discussing the Eastern Cougar, roadkill is one of the plausible evidence for proving the animals existence. When an actual body of a cougar is found, DNA can prove the lineage and also the existence of the animal which many dismiss inhabits the east. I for one am dismayed when I read about a roadkill of a mountain lion, as the graceful and powerful animal almost seems too wild invincible to be hurt. Then is the fact I am confused about how reports of cougars hit by cars and called into the game authorities seem to somehow never have any log or knowledge of the incident. And of course I have heard about how some people say they have a roadkill cougar and when the authorities come to pick it up, it is actually a dog.

the tragedy of cougars hit by car is nowhere as strong as it is in Florida. The Florida Panther is fewer than 100 individuals in the everglades of Florida. With roads crossing through the scrub land and panthers moving further into developed areas, the number of roadkill panthers is always growing. This year alone there have been 14 Florida Panthers which were hit by vehicles. 14 panthers a year can devastate the 100 or less population. One solution has been to create animal passageways under the road, so a creature can pass under the road to get to the other side, without touching the road. This is a good effort, but not completely reliable, as well as very few passageways per large stretches of road. The question is what can be done? But until we have a brilliant idea which won't cost much, we are going to see the increase in roadkill animals.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Jaguar Research and Umbrella Effect

Recently jaguar researcher Dr. Marcella Kelly, a professor at Virginia Tech, gave a presentation about her research in the jungles of Belize. Dr. Kelly is part of the Eastern Cougar Foundation and is active in placing camera traps (trail cameras) in the hope to photograph a cougar in the east. She was the expert who Roddy and I interview for more information on eastern mountain lions in Virginia.

The 45 minute presentation was on the research of population dynamics of jaguars in Belize. She and a team of people place trail cameras in a grid throughout the Belize jungle, hoping to photograph jaguars. After scientifically collecting data, the photos are labeled, and animals identified. This is where I come in. Taking an independent study course with Dr. Kelly, I have a job of labeling the place, camera, date, time, and animals of each photo.
During the presentation Dr. Kelly talked about the camera traps as well as using scat sniffing dogs to track jaguars. A dog is trained to sniff out jaguar scat in the jungle so the team can collect DNA from individual jaguars.
The Umbrella Effect is very important to conservationists. As Roddy described it: "slugs are not very interesting for people to want to protect them if there is an endangered slug. Big cats on the other hand are charismatic, and people will go for a save the jaguar idea. As jaguars need large areas of land, you can preserve the slug by protecting the land the jaguar lives on also."
SO the Umbrella Effect is about protecting one particular species, and in so you can protect a great number of species which inhabit the area. This is what I hope to do in search of the Eastern Cougar. Not only do I want to protect the mountain lion, but the natural area and the rest of the endangered species in the areas as well.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Western Mountain Lions (Utah)

During my recent trip to Utah, I was walking around grassy brush to stumble upon this scat. I immediately thought it to be a mountain lion's, (although it has a small chance to be coyote). It did not appear to be fresh, but I carefully swept the area for the presence of the mountain lion.

Western Mountain Lions are just as elusive as those which live in other parts. Although without dense trees, or jungle mountain lions in the west are still difficult to spot because of the secretive nature and because of their coloration blends into the rocks. People who live in the western states may never see a mountain lion, even if they live in prime Lion country. But, it is not unheard of the have an encounter.
Photo by: Jessica "wordridden" on Flickr

A family we met while in Utah shared a few stories of Mountain Lions. The husband while on a camping trip was hiking back to camp at dusk. When he passed a bunch of bushes, a growl was emitted and his dog was barking at it. Another time he was driving in the same region to see a Mountain Lion run across the road in front of his car. A third encounter was on the same mountain that my Aunt and Uncle live on. He was out at his car in the evening when something growled from the nearby hill. He couldn't be positive on the identification of the animals in the encounters which he did not see, but he was pretty sure it was a mountain lion.

At any rate it is rare to encounter a mountain lion in the west. There are many secluded areas where they prefer to claim as territory, but they are easily adapted to living right next to human development. Hikers who are alone and out at dusk and dawn are most likely to be vulnerable to attack. But it is not assured that you will be attacked, as there have been very few lion attacks within the past 100 years. Especially if you compare that to car crashes and even shark bites. Here (What we should be afraid of) is an article which highlights the factors to what leads to most human accidents deaths while camping.

As for encountering a mountain lion out west; be alert and look large to the animal, but above that, be grateful to have seen such a powerful symbol and icon of the Western United States.

Photo By: Josh More"Guppiecat" on Flickr

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Couriosity Killed the Camera

The results are in for the third camera we had placed in West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest. And they are mostly the same as the others. The results from the three cameras are:

of 140 photos, 87 pictures were deer

0f those 87 photos, we had 108 deer total, although they were probably the same few deer many times.

2 photos were bear (one bear taken 2 times)

2 were of unknown animals (most likely a raccoon)

the rest of the 50 or so photos were triggered by an unseen object (light, leaves, small animals).

Not what I had hoped for, but the pictures of the bear gave a nice variety to the deer. The title of the post is what happened with camera number three. Instead of along the road as the other two camera were, the third camera was placed in a grassy opening in the trees where hunters usually go. When we retrieved it, we found the camera was scratched in several places. Although the camera didn't sustain damage that was enough to stop it from working. It seems that the couriosity of the wildlife (either the bear of raccoon) can be detromental to the success of the camera trap.

Unknown animal in the camera. Possibly a raccoon

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Florida Panther

Photo Copyright: MacJewell, Flickr Creative Commons

Since the Florida Panther's population is less than 100 individuals, every panther is important for the survival of the species. In truth, the pure bloodline of the panther may be already tainted to the point of the destruction of the subspecies. When the population was suffering from dwindling individuals, mountain lions from western Texas to increase diversity. Nether the less, the Florida Panther is an important subspecies and one of the only confirmed mountain lion living in the Eastern portion of the United States.

These mountain lions are true swamp cats. Living in the Florida Everglades they are specially adapted to their environment. The only problem is, these days human development is pressing ever further into the glades and the Panther's territory. The danger for these cats is clear with the increasing number of roads in the area. Whether it is dirt or paved roads, the panther has to cross it to reach the other side. Last year 14 Florida Panthers were killed by collisions with cars. That is 14% of the entire population.... each year that is killed. Tunnels are created under the roads to help the flow the of panther, but it seems that it doesn't solve the problem.

This spring, a major blow the the population occurred when a female panther was found dead with a bullet wound. Henry County Florida, a panther was found shot just outside Big Cypress Preserve. It is a felony to kill an Endangered Species, but the criminal is unknown.

Read more about the Florida Panther and information regarding the killing go to:

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Glorious Return

Yesterday the family took a day trip to our favorite camping place. Monongahela National Forest has a special place in my heart, as it was the place my family went for every camping adventure when I was growing up. The Mon is specially important to prove the existence of the Eastern Cougar. This is because in the Monongahela National Forest has large expanses of generally untamed, wild forests where the mountain lions have the greatest possibility of existing today. Some believe (as I do) that the Eastern Cougar never left the "Mon."

Roddy and I spent 3 hours looking over the place and setting up 3 trail cameras in the best possible places on our property up there near the Mon. These are where there have been a variety of sightings from the family over the past 20 years of mountain lions.

Not only did we set up a trail camera on the path that a mountain lion would like to walk through, we placed hair traps on trees opposite of the trail cameras. The hair traps are to collect hair from any animal which rubs against the tree as it passes by. To better our chances of a mountain lion stopping by, we sprayed the tree with cougar "in heat" scent lure to attract them by. If one in the area smells the scent, it will stop by the tree. Maybe it will rub against the hair trap and we will get a hair DNA sample. Simultaneously, the trail camera which is pointed at the hair trap will take a photo of the cougar.We are returning to retrieve the cameras in July, so if you check back in Late July, we will see what we captured on film. Cross your fingers!

* please not that the cameras are on private land, the scent lures are not "baiting" the animals, and the hair traps are noninvasive, DNA collection devices.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Trail Camera Photos; What lives in a hole?

After the last post about trail cameras, I decided to post some of my own which were taken last week.
What lives on a mountain, in the forest, in a hole in the ground?
That was the question I asked myself when I happened upon it when hiking. After my disheartening attempt with the last trail camera position, (a total of 0 pictures except of me), I knew this spot was going to be promising. Here the ground had been scattered of rocks and soil from the hole. Did the inhaitant still live there now? I was hoping to find out.

The most difficult part about the spot was the trees were not favored for a camera strap to wrap around. Then if the tree was small enough, it was angled upwards so the camera would not look towards the hole. After moving around a lot, we picked a thin tree above on the hill. The strap was loose to allow the camera to point downhill, and rocks were wedged to keep the camera at the right angle.

Waiting about 2 weeks I was very worried about the camera, because of 2 whole weeks of torrential rail. I set it for 3 pictures at a time. When we retrieved the camera, here is what I saw.
Raccoons and a deer happened to pass by the area. Maybe in the future, I will find a cougar in the picture.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Importance of Trail Cameras

One of the most important tool in proving the existence of Eastern Cougars are Tail Cameras. The Eastern Cougar Foundation, myself included use these motion detecting cameras in "camera surveys." How a trail camera works is, the device is mounted (on a tree, or other stable object) at about 2-3 feet off the ground. The camera has a sensor which detects motion, and sometimes it can detect heat. When the sensor is tripped because of something passing in front of the camera, it tells the camera to snap a picture. Simple enough.

The best way to set up a trail camera:
1) Find a place that has the potential for animals to pass by frequently. This would be somewhere the trail funnels the animal through.
2) Find a suitable tree. This is the hardest part in setting up the trail camera, because you need the perfect sized tree where the strap will reach but be in the best position.
3) Know how to set up the camera whether it is digital or film.
4) Wait! and know the battery life.

Here are some pics I got:

Friday, March 27, 2009

Cougar Track vs Canine Track

Photos from "Hunter" in Coeburn, VA
One of the most difficult evidence for mountain lion research can be discerning a feline track from a canine track. Me included, I have looked at the different tracks and always wondered if the toes and pads were right for a feline, because in almost all cases the track is probably not going to be quintessential and perfect.

To start, when determining the animal which created the track, look at the number of toes. Both cat and canine should have four toes. If it has more, you are not looking at a feline/canine track.

1) Observe the shape and size of the track, a feline track is usually wider or rounded, where a canine track is usually oval (longer in length than in width).

2) Next, look at the shape of the heal pad (the large imprint behind the toes). Canines have a heal pad which is reminicent of a triangle or upside down heart. The lobes (or rounded edges of the back of the pad) of a canine are two on the edge of the pad, but a feline will have 3 lobes on the back of the heal pad. If this is confusing, the picture will help.

3) With felines, the toes are usually spaced around the heal pad. The toes are more like teardrops, and lack indication of claw marks. In tracks of canines, the toes are aligned with two in the front, and two somewhat behind the first two. The claw marks are visible in canine track.

4) ways to test the difference:

- Can you draw a X between the heal pad and the toes, without the pad or toes disrupting the lines? - If you can than it is probably canine

-If the X cannot be properly drawn, then are the toes arranged around the heal pad so you can draw an upside down U and touch the back of each toe?
-it may be a feline track

Take this example of a print that was taken in Virginia, where they believed it to be a cougar. It has the wide shape, and the toes which look like you cannot exactly draw the X for a dog print. The track actually is a dog track of some sorts. This was especially difficult to rule determine whether it was canine of feline. This is what happens when a track is not perfect, leaving it difficult to identify between the two. 1) notice the nail prints, dogs have the nails present in the tracks, although very rarely felines do too. 2) I can draw the x, although it is a little warped from the mud. 3) the back marks of the pad are missing in the track, here I drew what a pad of a cougar could look like. 4) overall, notice the track is symmetrical, feline tracks are not, so this is a dog track.

5) Size. Tracks of animals can be determined which species of a Canine/feline by the overall size of a track. Once you have determined the track family, the size can tell the genus/species.
If it is a canine track: a coyote has a print that is 2.5 to 3.5" long. a fox will have a track 2.3 to 3.1" long.
If it is a feline track: a mountain lion will have a print which is average of 3.75 inches long and 4 inches wide. A bobcat track is 2 to 2.5" long.

TO be completely sure if the track is canine or feline, it is best to go to a expert in distinguishing the tracks. (

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Bobcat Vs Cougar Identification

For an animal as distinct as a Mountain Lion it can be difficult to identify from a sighting. First realize that when someone gets a glimpse, that's all it is; a glimpse. Since they are shy creatures, they tend to not stick around for a prolonged look. Plus, sightings are usually at a distance, making the size difficult to determine. So I am going to try to help highlight the main features in identification.
1) The Face: Cougars- have a round face, with a wide nose, but short muzzle. They have a dark streak on either side of their muzzle, and white around the mouth.
Bobcats- have a square face, with fringe of fir on the sides of the face. The face has more spots and lines than a cougar.

2) Ears: Cougars- have rounded ears with black behind the ears.
Bobcats- have ears which look pointed because of black ear tufts. The backside is dark, with a white spot.

3) Tail: Cougars- long tail that is almost the length of the body about 30 inches, hanging low to the ground with a curve and black tip.
Bobcats- short stubby tail that is white and black striped. The "Bob"cat is named for the short or "bobbed" tail.
4) Coloration: Cougars- Tawny (light brown) to a darker brown or gray. They have white underbelly. Juveniles will have spots, which will disappear in 1-2 years.
Bobcats- Gray and white, with some brown tints. They have prominent black stripes and spots. Stripes on their legs, and spots on their backs.

5) Size: Cougars- are large cats which males can grow 115-200 lbs, and females 75-150 lbs. Their adult size is 60-76 cm tall, and 5-9 feet from nose to tip of tail.
Bobcats- adult males can be 70–120 cm long with a tail size of 4 inches. Length of a bobcat is between 30-35 inches. Females weigh about 20 lbs.

Juvenile mountain lions can look similar to adult bobcats, except without stripes, short tail, and the facial mane of a bobcat.

Photo References:
References: Cougar photos: TRACE projects, Camera Trap Codger
Bobcat photo: flicker creative commons

Friday, January 9, 2009

What is a Mountain Lion?

It occurred to me that I should explain some of the basics of what a cougar is and about the possibility of their existence in the east.

So, what is a cougar?

- Well, a cougar defined by the Eastern Cougar Foundation is; large, tawny, long-tailed cat native to the new world. They have been called a range of names from Cougar, Mountain lion, Puma, Panther, Painter, to Catamount. (Although I use Cougar when talking about them).

What color are they?

-Cougars are mainly a light brown color; or called tawny. They can have a range of dark brown to grey during the winter months as they grow a longer coat.

What kind of habitat do they live in?

- I am amazed at the range of habitat they can and do live in. They can live in desert environments, rainforests, steppes, coastal swamps, mountains, and forests.

What is an Eastern Cougar?

-By my definition, it is any mountain lion (felis concolor), that inhabits the wild of the Eastern United States, whether it is part of the eastern subspecies, or has migrated eastwards.

* ask any questions and I will try to answer them! is the reference sight for Eastern Cougar Foundation