6 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Wild Cats

Credit: Mary Plage / Getty Images

Hikers should never underestimate the speed, intelligence, and strength of wild cats. That's at least one lesson you can take from two recent studies that followed mountain lions in California's Santa Cruz Mountains and cheetahs in Africa's Kalahari desert. Here are some of the top takeaways from the studies that should give you a newfound respect for these beasts — and the researchers studying them. 

1. There's a "Fitbit" for Mountain Lions
Mountain lions are masters of the "sneak attack" also known as the "stalk-and-pounce" — consisting of a slow walk up to their prey, then a burst of speed and energy to make the kill. But University of California ecologist Terrie Williams also discovered that mountain lions — commonly known as pumas or cougars — actually anticipate the size and type of their prey, then adjust how much energy they want to use accordingly in their pounce. A mountain lion would put more energy into pouncing a full-grown buck and less on a smaller-sized fawn. "What this study shows us is the minute-by-minute decisions these cats are making and why," says Williams. "It comes down to the biggest number of calories for the least amount of effort."

But the way the researchers discovered this is equally incredible: They used what Williams calls a "Fitbit" for mountain lions — specially-designed collars attached to the cats that track how far they walked, how long they rested, groomed or ate. By also recording videos of their activities, the researchers were able to match up the data with previous measures of how many calories the cats burned while sitting, walking or running on a treadmill.

2. ... And It Turns out the Cats Aren't All That Fit 
Despite being high-energy killers, the study reveals mountain lions burn out fast — they just don't have the aerobic capacity to sustain the high-energy used in their stalk-and-pounce for more than a short period of time. That means the mountain lions have to balance out their energy by laying low for the rest of the day — which could explain the traditional notion of wildcats lounging languidly in the shade for hours on end. More time spent walking slow, sleeping, resting and waiting equals more energy for a bigger kill. "We've really underestimated what these cats need to survive and reproduce," says Williams. "Calories are the bottom line for both humans and animals — it costs a lot to be a carnivore, and to move around."

3. Mountain Lions Are Most Likely to Hunt (or Attack) at Dawn and Dusk
Mountain lions hunt at dusk — which is the cat's peak movement time, hunting time, and energy-expending time, according to the research. "If I was camping or hiking, I would move around before or after this period," advises Williams. "Stay away from those grey areas at dawn and dusk, and your chance of an encounter — at least for hunting — are going to be lower than in the middle of the day."

4. Cheetahs Sleep for 88 Percent of Their Day
Cheetahs — a smaller species of wild cat than their sister, the mountain lion — have their own clever ways to conserve energy. Namely, by sleeping. In a separate study, biologist David Michael Scantlebury's team at Queen's University in Belfast found that cheetahs are in motion for only about 12 percent of their day, and that time is spent walking across the desert looking for food — usually only about 2.86 hours a day. They spend the rest of their time resting — and if their high-calorie meal (usually of antelopes like gazelles or impalas) was especially big, they get even more down time, sometimes for days. "The most interesting thing we were able to show is that cheetahs are so very resilient in a harsh environment," he explains. "They're so tough they can live for days without water, walk for days on end in the heat, and go several days without catching anything."

5. Wild Cats Are Not All That Dangerous to People
Williams and Scantlebury both agree that wild cats are not dangerous to humans. "If you're out in the wild, there are mountain lions around, but you'll never see them or hear them," says Williams. "In a normal situation, a healthy mountain lion wants to be as far away from you as possible." Williams says problems might occur only in abnormal situations — like if an animal is injured and acts erratically — or when humans aren't prepared or act foolishly. "You don't go out and chase a mountain lion with a camera to take a picture. You need to be smart and stay in open areas," she says. And if you do see one, she adds, look large, and don't bend down — the cats might instinctively see you as prey. 

6. In Fact People Are More Dangerous to Cats
Both studies had one common goal: to understand how animals live, and how we can preserve that way of life. Scantlebury and Williams say that when humans change the environment in a way that's disruptive to the cats — like building roads over land they thrive on — it can increase their energy costs and damage their way of life. "Because the main reason [the cheetah's] energy expenditure was walking, anything we do to make them walk around more will increase their energy costs," says Scantlebury. "You must be very careful not to affect the environment." In other words, respect the wild cat.