Cougars in California’s Death Valley have been observed killing and eating donkeys for the first time ever. Pictures taken on a camera trap in the national park have shown a killing sequence of a cougar taking down and then mounting a donkey in the dead of night.
Saber-toothed cats and dire wolves used to hunt wild horses around 12,000 years ago, across North America. But when these predators died out, the continent’s thriving population of horses and donkeys were left to roam free, with no predators able to hunt them.
Wild horses and donkeys have become so well established in the wild that they are often considered pests, and the authorities take initiatives to remove them.
However, a study by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has announced that cougars, also known as mountain lions, hunt wild donkeys in Death Valley.
To observe donkey activity patterns in areas where cougars are active and those where they are not, researchers set up camera traps in Death Valley National Park.
The findings, published in Journal of Animal Ecology, revealed that “cougar predation appears to be rewiring an ancient food web.” It suggests that cougars are taking the place of the ancient predators that once preyed on wild donkeys in the wild 12,000 years ago.
Study leader author Erick Lundgren, at Aarhus University, told Newsweek: “These findings are important because they dispel a long-held claim that wild burros – and wild horses – lack natural predators.
“This claim is key to the policy of how these animals are treated and the current situation: it [California state] the budget is almost exhausted by rounding up these animals and putting them in long-term care for adoption. Our results suggest that we can instead increase protections for cougars — and wolves — that state and federal agencies otherwise spend millions of dollars killing.”
Researchers also discovered that cougar predation leads to changes in wild donkey behavior, as well as their impact on the local ecosystem.
The study said this illustrates, “not only how extinct ecosystems may have functioned, but also the conservation potential of preserving this predator-prey interaction.”
Researchers found that the donkeys were primarily active during the day at wetlands with cougar predation. This suggests that they did it to avoid the cougars.
However, wild donkeys were active both day and night in places where there were no threats from cougars. “The differences between wetlands with and without mountain lion predation are remarkable,” Lundgren said in a statement, “and are even visible from satellite imagery.”
In places where cougar predation was present, donkeys had far less impact on the wetland ecosystem. Researchers recorded 43 percent less trampled bare ground and 192 percent more canopy cover.
“These are the areas that land managers and conservationists are concerned about and use to argue for the wholesale removal of wild donkeys,” Lundgren said in a statement. “But if you go just a few kilometers away to wetlands where mountain lions hunt donkeys, wetlands are lush with pristine vegetation, have only one or two donkey trails and limited trampling.”