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Mystery of the Mountain Lion

Conservation officials scrutinize the remains of a cougar
killed near Fulton for clues about its habits and heritage
Thursday, August 14, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:46 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Tracking the habits and history of a mountain lion is the kind of mystery the employees of the Missouri Department of Conservation solve best.

A light-hearted air surrounded the group of unlikely detectives gathered Wednesday around the carcass of their newest celebrity in the back corner of the parking lot behind the Missouri Department of Conservation Research Center.

Hit a mile outside Fulton in the southbound lane of U.S. 54 on Monday night, the 105-pound male mountain lion was about 2 years old and 6½ feet long from nose to tail.

Taxidermist David Megahan removed the cougar’s skin, wielding his sharp $5 kitchen knife on a makeshift operating table constructed of two barrels and a piece of plywood, starting the investigation of the cougar’s habits and heritage. After he finished, he turned the skin right-side-out like a sweater, packed it into a plastic bag to be tanned and went to wash his bare hands.

State conservation agent Brian Ham attended Wednesday morning’s necropsy, curious to see the cougar’s stomach contents and to make sure the taxidermist had the proper paperwork for legally possessing the hide.

Ham said Missouri doesn’t have a breeding population of mountain lions. This cougar and one killed in Kansas City last October were male. A female has not been confirmed in Missouri since 1994, when it was treed and shot by raccoon hunters in Carter County. The recent hits, however, might mean the population is growing.

“Two in the last six months tends to make you scratch your head,” Ham said. “It would tend to suggest our population is growing.”

The left front paw of the cougar being examined was injured at some point before the car hit it, leaving only one claw. That paw was removed in one piece and will be sent to veterinarians at the University of Wyoming or the University of Montana who specialize in mountain lions.

David Hamilton, resource specialist with the conservation department, said he doesn’t think a trap caused the paw injury, given the extent of the damage. But he was very interested in how long ago the injury had occurred because that will tell more about the mountain lion’s past. Ham said the injury would have affected the cougar’s hunting ability, though the animal was in great shape otherwise.

The crowd around the mountain lion dwindled after about an hour, driven away by the nauseating smell or the gruesome sight of the skinless carcass.

Hamilton said the cougar’s injuries indicate a blow to the neck, possibly from the car’s fender. The blow severed the spinal cord and separated the vertebrae, killing the mountain lion immediately. Both the cougar’s front legs were broken, and it had suffered other cuts.

During the examination, the mountain lion was cut open down the middle. Its stomach and other organs were removed and dissected. All the different parts were placed in separate plastic bags to be examined in greater depth later.

The stomach examination is what many of the spectators had been waiting for, because it will help determine whether the animal had been living in the wild. Even if the cougar had originally been in captivity, Ham said it could have learned how to survive in the wild.

“It will survive; the instincts are there. Just like a house cat can survive in the wild,” Ham said.

The stomach revealed bones and fur from a gray squirrel. Oddly, it also contained fly eggs, suggesting the squirrel was not fresh.

Wildlife damage biologist Jim Braithwait said cougars will eat squirrels, rabbits or whatever prey they come across, though they usually will not scavenge, or eat animals that are already dead. Braithwait said the young cougar might have eaten anything out of a struggle to find food.

“That may be why he was hit, eating something he’d found on the road,” Braithwait said.

The last mountain lion examined had synthetic fibers in its stomach.

Tom Hutton, the biologist in charge of supervising of wildlife damage, said it could take six weeks to three months to get positive identification on the cougar’s stomach contents, to test DNA and determine whether it is of North or South American stock and to analyze muscle and skin samples.


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