Wildlife biologists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln determined that a young male mountain lion that was hit in 2005 by a vehicle on I-80 near Gretna moved hundreds of miles across the state from the northwest.
The finding was made from tissue in the claw of the lion. It helps determine how the rare animals in Nebraska occasionally end up far from home.
The mountain lion was found dead along the interstate in Sarpy County in November 2005. It probably came out of the Black Hills of South Dakota, said Larkin Powell and another wildlife ecologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Mountain Lion facts
Body length: 3-4 ft. Tail: 2.5-3 ft. Height at shoulder: 25-30 in. Weight: 70-170 lbs. A large, slender cat with a smallish head and noticeably long tail. Its fur is a light, tawny brown color which can appear gray or almost black, depending on light conditions.
As it made its way across northeast Nebraska, it drank water and ate prey such as deer, which became part of the growing tissue of its claw.
Earlier research at UNL's School of Natural Resources found that the state's water has a distinctive chemical signature in different places.
Powell and his colleague built on that research, analyzing samples of the claw to see where the animal was when it ate and drank. They found that the chemical signature varied from the claw's tip, the oldest part, to its root, the newest part, and by comparing it to the chemical patterns found in water and deer across the state, they inferred its origin and migration route.
The mountain lion likely traveled through northeastern Nebraska, possibly along the Missouri or Elkhorn rivers, and probably not along the Platte River, before it arrived in the Gretna area.
Mountain lions exist in the wild in South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and Oklahoma, and sometimes need more space.
"The results of this study give us a glimpse into the behavior of an exceedingly rare animal in Nebraska that wouldn't have been possible otherwise," said Scott Taylor, wildlife research section leader in the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. "The public is very interested in the status of mountain lions in the state, and this study helps shed some much-needed light on how they occasionally make their way to eastern Nebraska."
"The fact that we could do this is very exciting," said Jim Douglas, wildlife division administrator of Game and Parks. "We've had a lot of mountain lion confirmations, but they have such a large home range, I joke that we don't know if we've got 50 mountain lions or one on a motorcycle. You could have a mountain lion confirmation in Chadron, and a week later, another in Niobrara. It could be the same mountain lion."
The research also helps provide scientific evidence that animals' range creeps into new territories, Douglas said.
"People think sometimes because we translocate animals like bighorn sheep from Montana to Nebraska, that that's what's going on. But armadillos are showing up on the south border of Nebraska. Some animals don't move a long way, but their range shifts slightly over time," Douglas said.
However, young male mountain lions can and do cover a lot of ground. Powell said the steady change in the chemical composition of sections of the claw "shows it wasn't someone's pet, because then the chemical content should be constant across the claw. And it wasn't raised somewhere else and released here, because then there would have been a jump in the chemical signature."
Instead, Powell said, the pattern of gradual change in the claw's chemical content is consistent with young male lions' drive to find a territory of their own.
Hunting and habitat destruction eliminated mountain lions from the eastern United States, including Nebraska, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but they have gradually been making their way east again since 1990, with the first confirmed sighting in Nebraska in 1991. The Cougar Network, on-line at www.easterncougarnet.org, documents mountain lions' return to their former habitat. "Mountain lion," "cougar," and "puma" all refer to Puma concolor. Bobcats are a separate species.
Most sightings in Nebraska have been in the north and west parts of the state, with a substantial cluster in Dawes County, said Sam Wilson, a Game and Parks biologist. The few confirmed sightings in the east are exceptions.
"Before 2004, we'd only had one confirmed mountain lion observation (in Dawes County)," he said. "Since 2004, there have been 14. The confirmations in the Pine Ridge area have really risen in the past few years. It seems like it would be good mountain lion habitat, and it's logical if we assume they're dispersing from South Dakota. There's not a lot of people, there's a lot of deer, and it's rugged."
In the unlikely event that someone encounters a mountain lion, Game and Parks offers several tips (http://www.ngpc.state.ne.us/wildlife/mountainlion.asp), including backing away slowly and calmly, and picking up children to make sure they don't run. In the highly unlikely event of a mountain lion attack, experts recommend fighting back.