In some ways, mountain lions—also known as pumas, panthers, catamount or cougar depending on the region its found—can seem like a wasteful animal. Even though most average about 150 pounds, they will still take down a massive animal, like a 700-pound elk, more than it could ever eat on its own. But a recent study suggests that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The meaty leftovers from the big cat’s kill actually powers an entire ecosystem of insects and also benefits birds and other mammals.
Researchers studied 18 elk and mule deer carcasses left behind by mountain lions in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest in May of 2016, setting up beetle traps at each site. The team—led by Mark Elbroch, the puma program director for the big cat research and conservation organization Panthera—then visited each carcass weekly over six months to collect data. What they found was an entire ecosystem of beetles feasting on the carcasses, collecting 24,000 individual beetles from 215 different species, according to the new study published in the journal Oecologia. In sites without carcasses located just 65 feet away from the kills, they found a mere 4,000 beetles in comparison.
“It really speaks to the complexity of what’s happening at these sites,” Elbroch tells Jason Bittel at National Geographic. “We found all these species that I didn’t even know existed.”