Lab confirms droppings belong to mountain lion

Now there’s scientific proof.

After years of debate about whether cougars exist in Kansas, the Kansas Biological Survey on Tuesday released DNA analysis results of a feces sample from KU’s West Campus area.

“The verdict? It’s a cougar,” Mark Jakubauskas, research assistant professor for the Kansas Applied Remote Sensing Program with the Kansas Biological Survey, wrote in an e-mail Tuesday afternoon.

The test result is the first scientific proof of a cougar in the area. The Applied Technology in Conservation Genetics Lab in the Department of Biology at Central Michigan University analyzed DNA from the sample.

“The DNA analysis confirms numerous sightings and reports of a cougar on West Campus and around Lawrence and Douglas County by different persons over the past few years,” the e-mail stated.

Brad Swanson, who oversaw the analysis at Central Michigan University, did not return calls Tuesday.

“It’s certainly one of the best pieces of evidence that has ever been acquired to prove the existence of cougars in Kansas,” said Joe Collins, an adjunct herpetologist with the biological survey. “I’m just really, really pleased they were able to find that kind of evidence and get it analyzed and nail it down.”

Jakubauskas found the sample Oct. 9.

In September, Jakubauskas set up a motion detection-triggered camera in a field near West Campus after receiving reports of a cougar roaming that area. The camera captured a fuzzy picture Oct. 1 of what some believed was a mountain lion. Mountain lions are also known as cougars, pumas or panthers and are members of the large cat family.

“It still doesn’t prove that the blob in the picture was cougar, but it sure lends weight to it,” Jakubauskas said.

Collins said he has received conflicting opinions from biologists in other states about the picture. Some said the animal in the picture was a dog, others said it was a cougar.

Jakubauskas was attempting to estimate the size of the photographed animal when he found the sample.

“Some of the cells from the animal are sloughed off and included in the scat,” Jakubauskas said, which makes it possible to analyze DNA included in those cells to determine what species expelled the sample. The Central Michigan University lab was able to compare the DNA in the sample to their own library of DNA.

“Ours matched up to cougar. So we can definitely say we now have scientific proof that a cougar was on West Campus in October. They use DNA analysis to put away murderers — anyone who watches Law & Order on TV knows that.”

Jakubauskas said the Central Michigan University lab also could have tested for gender, type of cougar (South American or North American), parasites and food remnants. A South American cougar is more likely to be a released captive than a wild animal, Jakubauskas said.

The scat test at Central Michigan University cost a few hundred dollars, said Jakubauskas, who has not yet received an invoice.

“I was just curious if it’s cougar or not cougar,” he said.

Jakubauskas is interested in doing more testing if he or the Biological Survey finds a way to pay for it.

Collins said many captive cougars have been declawed, and he doubts a declawed cougar would be able to survive in the wild.

A number of Lawrence-area residents have reported seeing cougars in the area, and there are confirmed sightings of cougars in surrounding states, including Missouri and Nebraska.

Monday, Anthony Capra, 12, Douglas County, said he saw a cougar near his parents’ home, about 24 miles southwest of Lawrence.

Though Capra’s was the most recent sighting, numerous others have reported seeing the animal as well, including Dennis Constance, a former Lawrence city commissioner. Constance, who is now custodial supervisor senior for KU’s Facilities and Operations’ housekeeping department, said he saw the animal in the early morning hours Oct. 14.

“Carry your digital cameras with you at all times, because we desperately need good photographs,” Collins said. “If I see one, I think I would stay in the car. If it’s a wild mountain lion, it will probably run from you, but if it’s an animal that was kept in captivity, it might come toward you.”

“If you encounter one in the wild, stand tall,” Collins said. “You don’t want to do anything that would tip the animal off, like by running, and have it respond by a predatory chase. But I really don’t think they pose any danger to adult people in the county.”

KU has a no-weapons policy, and discourages people from attempting to hunt any animals on or around West Campus.