Tracking large carnivore dispersal using isotopic clues in claws: an application to cougars across the Great Plains


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1. Cougar (Puma concolor) populations, like other large carnivores, have increased during recent decades and may be recolonizing their former ranges in Midwestern North America. The dispersal routes taken by these animals from established populations are unknown and insight into these movements would facilitate their conservation and management.

2. We inferred the origin and migration route of four dispersing cougars using stable hydrogen (δD) and carbon (δ13C) isotope values along one of their claws. We compared isotopic variations within claws to regional and large-scale isoscapes of δD and δ13C values in prey species. Using a likelihood-based assignment approach, we predicted the most likely dispersal route of each cougar (among several least-cost dispersal paths to potential source populations) in a chronological sequence dating back from its final location.

3. Our model predicted the origin of a radio-collared short-distance disperser and inferences about the most likely dispersal corridors for two long-distance dispersers matched reported information from re-sighting events and genetic investigations.

4. Insights about the most likely migration corridors may help identify critical areas and guide future conservation efforts of cougars and other large carnivores. We encourage managers to extend regional isoscapes based on sedentary prey species as they prove to be valuable tools in isotopic tracking of long-distance migration.

5. Our isotopic approach may be extended to other metabolically inert tissues that grow continuously, to investigate dispersal paths of species of interest, providing that individuals disperse across known isotopically structured landscapes.