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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Eastern Cougar extinct

After completing a five year study, the USFWS has declared that the Eastern cougar, a subspecies of the cougar (or mountain lion or puma or panther or one of several other names) extinct. They point out in their study that most of the tiny number of documented mountain lions in the east have proven to be from Western or South American origin. They found very little physical evidence for mountain lions of any heritage to be in the east.

Captive mountain lion (2003)
If you know me, you know this is a topic of great interest for me. I have a professional interest in this subject and believe it is the perfect way to teach students about critical thinking, the role of science, what counts as evidence and how to discern good sources of information from bad.

So I have been following news stories and have taken the time to read many comments posted by readers and found very little new. Same story: I saw one. My neighbor saw one. I saw a picture of one..... you know the drill...

Last night I found an article that caught my eye because of the title. Posted on Yahoo News, this author based his belief in east mountain lions partly on some photos that were emailed to him of a mountain lion from a town in Connecticut. It only took me 30 seconds to find the history of those photos ( a new hoax for me, by the way) and they were debunked over a year ago. I sent the author the link to that previous article, gave him a little background on my history and asked if there was any way to correct the misinformation in the article.

I should pause here and say that when I contact people about misinformation, one of three things happens. Sometimes I never hear from them. A few times, I have gotten rude replies, but some of that might be my fault too. It is hard to tell someone they are wrong tactfully, especially when it is someone you have no history with. Often, they contact me with more questions and I get an apology or a retraction (I got Channel 8 News in Rochester to retract a story on air this fall). Brad, the author of the story in question, was in this last group. He sent me a very nice email and got his editor to add a paragraph to the story (see link below). Even though I had no classes to teach today, I felt as if I was an educator.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ac/20110304/tr_ac/7987914_mountain_lions_still_prowl_new_england_forests_despite_report

Many people assume that since there are so many sightings of mountain lions (John Lutz, founder of the Eastern Puma Research Network boasts of collecting of over 11,000 mountain lion sightings through his organization). The theory is that all of these people cannot be wrong. But the paradox of the situation is that the more sightings, the more lions there must be. And the more lions, the more physical evidence. See, if there were only a few sightings spread over a large area over many years, no one could say for sure that the sightings were not legitimate. But we have many sightings in many locations for many years and still no "smoking gun". No physical evidence.

So some people spend a great deal of effort documenting many stories when in fact they are only undermining their case in the process. Many cats means much physical evidence and that is not the case. If 99% of Lutz's stories were misidentifications, that would still leave 110 actual cougar sightings. That doesn't mean there are 110 mountain lions, as one individual cat would be seen multiple times, but it still would represent dozens of individual cats. And if there had been dozens of cats in the east, at least some (or one) of them would be hit by cars, captured on trail cameras, get treed by hounds, shot by hunters, produce scat, tracks, kills and other physical evidence, etc. The TRUE amount of misidentification in this story is probably closer to 99.99%. Here is one of my favorite misidentifications, although it does not involve a mountain lion :)

Red fox (Mt. Washington, NH 1999)
In 1999, Bruce Gilman and I took students on an environmental course to Newfoundland. On the first day, we drove to New Hampshire to take the cog railroad to the top of Mount Washington. It is a fun trip and really gives the students a sense of the various ecosystems we will encounter. There was a fox den near the parking lot and one adult and several pups were poking around on that rainy afternoon. One pup was fairly close so I grabbed my camera and stood perfectly still as he came out of the brush. Another visitor, not from our group, joined me and we stood elbow to elbow snapping photos as the pup emerged, shook off the rain and loped into the brush about 45 feet away. I turned to the man and smiled. He smiled back and from under his Red Sox hat he said "Bobcat, right?" ... I was momentarily speechless. I was not expecting that at all. Did he not just see that long bushy tail get shaken? How about a dozen other characteristics that differentiate a dog (red fox) from a feline (bobcat)? I am sure some of that confusion was visible on my face, but I managed to only say "Oh...no, red fox." But what do you expect from a Red Sox fan?

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