GPS Tracking Reveals Elk Know How to Outsmart Wolves and Mountain Lions

4 Feb 2020

Viewed as prey by both mountain lions and wolves, according to a study, Yellowstone National Park elk have figured out the best way to avoid these predators.

While the elk do sometimes get caught, their ability of dodging the predators each day explains why the elk, wolves and mountain lions are all “thriving” on the park’s landscape.

Wolves are conspicuous, charismatic and simple to single out and the leading predator that affects the deer, elk and other prey animal populations. But, the study found the discreet cougar is really the top predator that influences the elk’s movement across the northern Yellowstone National Park’s winter range.

According to the study, mountain lions like to hunt in forested areas at night, whereas wolves tend to hunt on the park’s Northern Range grassy, flat areas in the early evening hours and mornings.

Elk sidestepped both wolves and cougars by choosing the areas outside those higher-risk locations, generally rugged, forested areas during the day when the cougars are resting and flat, grassy areas at night when the wolves snooze.

The study provides insight into how prey could use the predators’ differences in their hunting habits to stay safe from all predators simultaneously.

Using GPS tracking technology, the researchers of the study revisited GPS (global positioning system) data to produce their results from 27 elk fitted with radio collars that they collected in 2001 through 2004 when the number of cougars and wolves were highest.

They combined the GPS data of the elk with information on the day-to-day activity patterns of the wolves and cougars also fitted with GPS trackingcollars, and the areas of the wolf- and cougar-killed elk to test if elk would avoid these predators by choosing for “vacant hunting domains” times and places when and where neither predator would be likely to kill elk.

Realizing that wolves and cougars hunted in different locations and times helped the researchers to see how elk could reduce threats from both predators simultaneously.

Wolves are typically the blamed or presumed predator for any changes in a prey population, behavioral or numerical. The research shows this isn’t necessarily true and that along with the wolves, other large predators should be considered.

Had the researchers ignored the fact the predators did have different schedules, they’d have incorrectly concluded avoiding one particular predator necessarily raised exposure to the other. Movement out of the flat, grassy areas into the rugged, forest areas to avoid cougars didn’t lead to greater risk from wolves and vice versa since the predators were active at different times each day.

Utah State University researchers Dan MacNulty and Michel Kohl co-led the study.

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