14 January 2017

Cougar skulls, skin, and DNA: A history of the big cat in New Brunswick

Scientists searching for cougars in New Brunswick, but over the past century there's been evidence of several

By Shane Fowler, CBC News

Recent genetic test results have conclusively proven that two encounters in recent years with big cats in New Brunswick didn't involve cougars — but there's evidence to suggest the species has made intermittent appearances in the province over the last century.

Donald McAlpine, research curator and head of zoology at the New Brunswick museum, said there's never been a resident population of the big cats in the province, but various pieces of evidence of its presence have been found dating back to the early 1900s.

"We do have a photograph from 1932 from Kent County of somebody holding up what is clearly a cougar skin," said McAlpine. "Whether it come from New Brunswick, we don't know."

McAlpine said the museum also has a mounted animal that came from the border region of New Brunswick, Maine and Quebec in 1938.

He said the assumption has always been that it was a wild animal, but the possibility exists that it could once have been captive.

Little is also known about a skull that was found in the woods not far from Fredericton in the early 1980s.

"The skull was picked up around a bear-baiting station. It may be from the carcass of an animal that was left in the woods," said McAlpine. "We've tried to extract DNA from that animal a number of times without success."

In addition to physical evidence, McAlpine said the museum has received "hundreds, if not thousands" of reports of cougar sightings that it hasn't been able to confirm.

"That's not to suggest that none of them are cougar," he said. "A very small percentage of them may be, and some of them do seem quite credible."

The most recent physical proof of the big cat in the province dates back to 2003. Hair samples were collected from scratching posts installed in Fundy National Park and tested for DNA, with two coming back positive for cougar.

Genetic comparison of the samples to other cougar populations from around the Western Hemisphere proved to be from a South American population. It is speculated that animal had been in captivity before being released in the park. The other sample came from a Western Canadian population.

New Brunswick is home to a pair of big cat species. Bobcat and lynx are elusive predators, rarely seen, but well documented in the province. They are often mistaken for cougars in the brief seconds they are spotted in New Brunswick forests. 

Two instances of alleged cougar sightings were discounted this week when genetic testing on recovered hair and scat showed both animals had been bobcats.

Four more DNA samples are currently undergoing genetic testing at the Canadian Rivers Institute Genomics Lab in Saint John.