The development of a new collar, termed the SMART collar, will enable researchers to better understand the behavior of mountain lions in the wild. After five years of developing the collar, researchers at UC Santa Cruz published their findings in the journal Science on Oct. 3. “The findings used a prototype collar, which aren’t as advanced as collars currently in development,” co-author Gabriel Elkaim said.

The new collars incorporate accelerometers which continuously measure 3D motion. By linking data from the accelerometer with GPS, researchers can detect where an animal is and what it’s doing.

“One of the primary goals in developing the collar is to monitor animals when they are active and to understand how they move around among each other,” said UCSC graduate student and co-author Yiwei Wang. “With this information and other data collected through the collars, we can understand how animals are affected by human development.”

Researchers calibrated the accelerometers on captive pumas as they moved around while also filming the animals. Co-author Terri Williams even collected data by studying a mountain lion on a treadmill with the help of co-author Lisa Wolfe. If a mountain lion is lying down, the accelerometer collar is going to give a very low-acceleration profile. If the mountain lion is running around, the acceleration signature will look much different, resembling a periodic wave reflecting the movement of the animal, co-author Caleb Bryce said.

“Because we matched up video recordings with the collar recordings on captive mountain lions, we can identify what running looks like and easily differentiate it from what sleeping or pouncing looks like,” Bryce said. “When wild pumas perform those behaviors, we can similarly match up the signatures to the behavior and ‘see’ what an animal is doing without actually seeing it in the wild.”

Researchers rely on looking at the map of the animal’s GPS points and locating possible prey to indicate what the animal ate, Elkaim said.

“Our idea is that the processor on the tag should decipher that the animal is currently stalking,” Elkaim said. “If the animal is stalking we know it’s going to pounce. If the animal is going to pounce, we want to take a lot of data right now. We want to know its position not every four hours, but its position every second or even faster. It turns out there is enough data on the signature to get an idea of how big the target animal was versus how small.”

The new technology of the SMART collars could provide ecological insights into the life of mountain lions, Bryce said. Researchers will have a better sense of when the mountain lions are engaging in activities such as denning, hunting and reproducing. Similarly, Elkaim said the collar allows for the determination of a “life-cycle cost” for how much energy the animals use and how much oxygen is consumed.

“Some of the things that are very interesting to the biologist are the number of times the animal pounces, if it kills, what it kills, how heavy [the prey] was and how long it takes before it tries to kill again,” Elkaim said. “This is paramount because this is where the animal gets its energy.”

If mountain lions are removed from the ecosystem, they can no longer regulate the prey populations — this can have cascading ecological effects. Since the prey are primarily herbivores, the ecological effects could be an increase in overgrazing and disease transmission, Bryce said.

“Our focus on the energetic costs of mountain lions was grounded on the premise that through studying a large carnivore, we can learn a great deal about the surrounding ecosystem,” Bryce said.

An additional benefit of studying the mountain lions’ behavior include how they are affected by human development. “Mountain lions and other large carnivores are threatened globally due to stressors such as climate change and people moving from suburban and exurban landscapes,” Bryce said.

He said many researchers on Chris Wilmers’ team have future plans of expanding the study from mountain lions to other ecologically important carnivores like polar bears and wolves.

“It’s a great project,” Elkaim said. “It’s one of those things where you get the biologists and the engineers working together and we get to do something unusual, useful and frankly, a lot of fun.”