We live in an increasingly polarized era, and millions of Americans consume news sources that agree, rather than challenge, their viewpoints.

Is it possible that animals are as tired of extreme polarization? A new study suggests the answer is yes….and no. University of California Santa Cruz researchers wanted to see if mountain lions (also known as pumas and cougars) are afraid of humans, so they tested this by playing  recordings from some of the nation’s top political commentators, from Glenn Beck to Rachel Maddow to Rush Limbaugh when the mountain lions were feasting on a freshly killed meal and seeing how the animals reacted (video is //www.washingtonpost.com/video/c/embed/b15c5408-568d-11e7-840b-512026319da7“>here).

Lo and behold, “across 20 experiments involving 17 pumas, 83 percent of pumas fled when exposed to human voices, and only one puma ran away when hearing frogs.” Mountain lions did not care if the pundits were male or female or liberal or conservative. In fact, the researchers chose these recordings based more on their sound quality than anything else, and any human voice was enough to scare them away.

Meanwhile, the mountain lions in the control group only heard recordings of frogs were less likely to flee their kill and to spent more time eating. This means the mountain lions who fled the political discussions spent less time eating and had to hunt more often, pushing them into further increased contact with humans, just to stay nourished.

The impetus for this study is to examine whether increased human contact has any impact on the mountain lions or their ecosystem.

Mountain lions are apex predators, positioned at the top of the food chain. Under normal circumstances, little frightens them. Rather, they are the ones who generate terror. Prey species — deer, raccoons, even coyotes — must keep their wits about them to avoid becoming a lion’s next meal. Wariness of predators makes these other species spend less time eating and more time hiding, watching or scurrying out of view. The cascading effects of these behavioral changes can reshape an entire ecosystem: Plants that were once bitten down to stubs by grazing deer may rebound, small critters can find new homes and hiding spots in the restored foliage, the course of a stream may shift, the composition of the soil itself may change.

Ecologists call this phenomenon the “landscape of fear,” noting that the simple possibility of predation plays an important role in how animals interact with their world.

The study’s goal will help humans prepare to the increased contact that they will have with these animals. The study was published in The Royal Society, and its abstract notes that:

Large carnivores’ fear of the human ‘super predator’ has the potential to alter their feeding behaviour and result in human-induced trophic cascades. However, it has yet to be experimentally tested if large carnivores perceive humans as predators and react strongly enough to have cascading effects on their prey.

Humans and human-related incidents are the leading cause of mountain lion deaths in California, even though the animals are a “specifically protected species” in California. They are actually relatively common in California, and this designation has nothing to do with their rareness. It is only legal to kill them if “1) if a depredation permit is issued to take a specific lion killing livestock or pets; 2) to preserve public safety; or 3) to protect listed bighorn sheep.” While the animals are apex predators, they rarely attack humans. In fact, “there have been only 16 verified mountain lion attacks on humans in California since 1890, six of them fatal” and “a person is one thousand times more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a mountain lion.”

Justine Smith, one of the main researchers on the study, concluded that “pumas are nonpartisan in their hatred of American politics.” There is no word on their preference in music. Perhaps that will be the subject of a future study.

For more profiles in nature, from US and China banning the ivory trade to the St. Augustine Monster to the Battle of the Cats to a Steve Irwin $100 bill to a deadly octopus to how 20% of fish eaten are mislabeled to a fish that weighs more than a pickup truck to a $300,000 fish to a fish named after Obama to a truly living “living fossil,” read here!

 

Advertisements