Washington cougar boldly swims where no cougar has swam before

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Cougars aren’t known for their love of water, but one young cougar from the Olympic Peninsula, Wash., has bucked that trend by taking a lengthy swim in the cold, orca-filled waters of the Salish Sea. 

In late January, M161 — a cougar tracked by the Olympic Cougar Project in Washington — swam to an uninhabited island more than a kilometre off the coast of Puget Sound. This display of aquatic athleticism has provided wildlife ecologists with new insight into cougars’ capabilities and expanded the range of where cougars can feasibly live. 

The Olympic Peninsula cougar population has the lowest genetic diversity and highest rates of inbreeding of all cougars in Washington due to their isolation from the mainland. As their gene pool shrinks, the population’s ability to adapt to changes in the ecosystem decreases, leaving the cougars more susceptible to threats such as disease. In response, the Olympic Cougar Project has been working to expand the home range of these cougars, and M161’s swim introduces new possibilities for accessible habitats. 

Whether all cougars possess the ability to cover the same distance as M161 remains a question, but wildlife ecologist John Benson says that a cougar’s motivation for attempting such a daring swim is likely a matter of life or death. 

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