A puma, a tapir, and a stalking horse

We and five other people were spot-lighting along the main road through Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco Parque of Bolivia when we witnessed an unusual interaction between a puma and a Brazilian tapir.  An adult tapir emerged onto the road immediately followed by an adult puma and together they walked away from us, the puma behind or beside the tapir, usually 3-4 m distant.  We followed them for about 20 minutes and 700 m, eventually stopping because the puma often paused briefly to stare back at us before rejoining the tapir.  None of the staff of our hosts, Nick’s Adventures/Bolivia, had witnessed such behavior before despite over a hundred puma encounters here.

We later hypothesized that the puma was using the tapir as a “stalking horse;” i.e., the strategy in which human hunters use a domestic animal to provide concealment or distract prey.  Some leopards in the Serengeti have learned this tactic, using safari vehicles to enhance their hunting success.  Trumpetfish have been videoed shadowing parrotfish to hunt; see the New York Times Aug 7, 2023 report on a paper by Matchette et al 2023, Current Biology 33(15).

We are thinking of publishing this observation and we would love to hear of any examples of analogous behavior of felids or other predators you have witnessed or heard about.

Mac Hunter and Charles Foley

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  • tomeslice

    This is super interesting! Awesome stuff!
    And I’m also very jealous that you went there 🙂

    Do you have pictures or video from the awesome encounter? (I’m sure you do!)

  • machunter

    Yes, it was certainly memorable. Charles did take a video that I have not seen (huge file size) but given the distance and darkness it will not appear on the BBC! In the video he noticed that the puma stopped to smell the vegetation multiple times…for prey or other pumas?… before rejoining the tapir.

  • jurekmammalwatching

    Maybe better interpretation would be that the puma used the tapir as a beater, to flush small prey like rabbits?

    This behavior is common among wildlife. I also suspect that many accounts of wolves, tigers or leopard stalking people are not incompetent man-eaters but using humans to flush deer. I myself saw several times humans or cars flushing other animals in my view.

  • machunter

    Thanks very much for that suggestion; flushing prey is certainly a possibility and indeed both flushing and concealment might be combined benefits of using this strategy. The “flushing” papers we have seen involve birds using much larger mammals (e.g. jacanas and capybaras or tapirs); do you know of any specific references for large cats using this technique? We wonder if a tapir would flush more prey than a puma by itself and if flushed prey would be easier to catch.

  • jurekmammalwatching

    Hi, I know of no specific reference for big cats, unfortunately. I only read and heard surprisingly many accounts that people saw fresh footprints of a big cat where they walked shortly before, or realized that a big cat was following them. But people are almost never attacked by big cats, and then usually in self-defence when surprised. So something is going on there.

    Advantage of using beaters is that the prey breaks camouflage, but runs slow and does not hide from the hunter. In Europe, I regularly see deer, wild boar and other wildlife sneaking away from people passing by. Once in India I saw a group of people – and a Jungle Cat sneaked away from them. It was cleverly concealing from people, but was in full view for me. Another time in a forest in Germany I saw an approaching car, and something moved in the undergrowth and walked away – it was a Wildcat sneaking away.

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