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Cougar

Conservation

Least concern conservation status

Scientific Classification

OrderCarnivora
SuborderFeliformia
FamilyFelidae
SubfamilyFelinae
GenusPuma
Binomial namePuma concolor

Description

The cougar is a solitary, elusive, and mostly nocturnal wildcat. They are also called the puma, mountain lion, and catamount.

They are the fourth largest cat species worldwide. Cougars measure about 2.4 meters long including the tail and weigh from 53 to 100 kg. 

Their color is grayish-brown with white underbodies. The fur is coarse and short with no spots or stripes. Cougars have blunt, short snouts above large jaws. The jaws are heavy to allow them to catch their prey by tearing and biting, rather than chewing.

Distribution

Cougars live in the United States in Alberta, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Cougars can also be found in British Columbia in Canada.

Cougars were once widespread throughout North America, but two-thirds of their original range has now been lost to humans. However, they can still be found as far north as Canada.  

Cougars live in both the U.S. and Canada and are found mainly in the west. There is also a small population that can be found in Florida. While in some areas, the range of the cougar is increasing, other states are seeing a decrease in the number of cougars.

The cougar was once the most widespread wild mammal in North America. Their range covered from British Columbia to Alberta in Canada and from California to Florida in the United States.

Cougars had been found in the Yukon in Alaska but had never been seen in the Queen Charlotte Islands. Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island on the East Coast have also never been home to cougars.

Cougars are wild animals and stray into states where they are generally not seen, but most live in the West of North America, with small populations in Florida on the East Coast.

Although there is a small subspecies of panthers in Florida, most live west of the east side of the rocky mountains, cougars can be found along the western half of Montana, through the western two-thirds of Wyoming and Colorado, along the eastern border of New Mexico, and down to the Mexican border in Texas.

Although many areas have historically been known as mountain lion territories on maps, cougars have not been seen for decades. Many of these areas do not have a resident population, with sightings coming from juveniles transiting through the area to find a new territory.  

Although Montana and Washington State are classed as mountain lion habitats, many areas of these states are entirely uninhabitable for these animals.

Cougars can be found in Southern Montana, returning to the Missouri Breaks in the 1990s. Before this, they could generally be found in the Absaroka-Beartooth regions.

In North Dakota, cougars can be found in the Badlands in the west, east of Montana. Again, in the 1990s, mountain lions were once again seen more often in the state. However, hunting in the state has led to a decline of the cat.  

In South Dakota, there is a population in the Black Hills. With a varied food source of elk and deer, the Black Hills make an excellent area for them. These animals are thought to have traveled from Wyoming, settling in South Dakota to breed.

Nebraska is not a state that many people believe has a population of mountain lions, but there is a small number, with estimates of twenty to thirty adults. These can be found in the Pine Ridge region in northwestern Nebraska.  

There are also several breeding adults in the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park on the Saskatchewan-Alberta border.  

Cougars are shy animals and are generally not aggressive. However, they do sometimes attack humans. For more information on this and what to do if this does happen, I have written an article you can find here.

Mountain lions have been spotted as far east as New York. However, these are believed, and some have been genetically tested to be from western populations. With most of these animals being males, it is unlikely that there would be any breeding pairs in these areas.  

Although most cougars can be found in the west, there is a population of cougars in Florida. There are thought to be up to 150 panthers in the state. The Florida Panther is a subspecies of cougar, recognized by the USFWS and many biologists.  

Due to inbreeding and genetic defects in the small population, eight females were brought in from Texas to help turn this around, although many argued against this as it would dilute the subspecies.

Cougars can be found in nine counties in Florida. Miami-Dade Counties and Collier County are the areas with the largest populations.

The Florida Panthers can be seen from Fort Myers in Lee County to Lake Okeechobee in Palm Beach County. They can be seen from the south of Lake Okeechobee down to Manatee Bay.

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Habitat

Cougars, due to the way they hunt their prey, need a habitat that allows them to hunt and has enough food to survive.

Cougars are different from most big cats as they will not chase after their prey. They will stalk their prey, lying in wait before pouncing on the unaware animal.  

Cougars need a habitat that allows them to hunt in these ways. Cougars do not like open areas and will try to keep to these areas’ borders, looking for places to take cover.

Cougars have been pushed from their natural habitats by man and now reside in areas where humans are not present. These are generally areas of coniferous and lowland tropical forests, mountains, swamps, ridges, and deserts where the cougar has to try to survive.  

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Due to their preference to stalk and leap on prey, such as deer, cougars prefer areas with cover. Forests of pine and fir trees make excellent coverage for cougars, although the type of trees is not as important as the fact that they provide shelter.

Cougars prefer higher elevations and have been spotted on mountains at fifteen thousand feet. Cougars are rarely found down in the bottoms of valleys. Some cougars in Arizona starved even though there were deer in the valleys below as they didn’t want to enter the unknown territory.

Two of the largest cougars on record came from very hot habitats in Utah and British Columbia.

Territory

Cougars hunt over large areas, so a permanent den is not needed as with some mammals.  

In some states, such as Idaho, cougars were found to have different summer-fall and winter-spring areas. In winter to spring, cougars have been found to use between 31 and 243 sq km, but in summer through to fall, their areas increased to 106 to 293 sq km. The smaller territory in winter can be attributed to snowfall in the area.

There was approximately one adult cougar per 35 sq km in Idaho, but in other areas, this is found to be as low as 21 sq km or as high as 200 sq km. Females overlap into other territories, but males do not. Young cougars can be found to move through the areas of both females and males.  

Due to their solitary nature, cougars will avoid another territory except when they are ready to mate. The territory of a male may overlap several female cougars but will rarely overlap with another male.  

Females occupy larger home ranges than males, and their territories may overlap with another female completely. Due to their solitary nature, cougars avoid meeting by the use of vocalizations and scent markings.

Cougars have a tenure system on the territory, with the area being taken until the resident dies. This leads to many young cougars seeking out new territories, limiting their ability to mate. Juvenile cougars may have to travel long distances to find a new home range that is not already occupied, with some traveling up to 1,00 km.  

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Photo of cougar

Due to the overlap of female territories, young males generally have to travel further to find a new territory, sometimes two to four times as far as females. Some females may even make their territory next to their mothers.  

Den

Cougars are unlike jaguars and bobcats, as they do not have a fixed den. However, females will use a den to rear their young. Females will use their entire range until they have kittens.  

These dens can be made in rocky crevices, heavy vegetation, and small caves. An area for denning kittens has to have sufficient cover and a rich supply of food to enable the young to survive.

Eyes

Cougars rely on their eyes for most of their hunting. Cougars have large eyes compared to similar-sized mammals, and the big eyes provide a wide angle of vision. Their eyes allow them to see angles of almost 285 degrees which helps them to find prey. This is a lot wider than a human field of vision which is 210 degrees.

Cougars have excellent night vision as their eyes contain more rods than cones, but they cannot see in complete darkness. The eyes of a cougar reflect backlight because of a layer called the tapetum lucidum.

This layer enhances visual sensitivity at low lights, meaning that cougars only need as much as one-sixth of the light that humans see in darkness.

Being able to see in low light allows the cougar to find their prey and avoid danger. Their eyes help them survive as they can see almost as well at night as they can during the day.

Cougar

Colour Vision

Cats have colour vision, with domestic cats being able to see some different colours, and the cougar is the same. Because the cougar has fewer cones in their eyes, their ability to tell the difference between colours is not as good as ours, but they can make out some. It is thought that their prey, such as deer, appears drab and brown to them.

Hearing

Cougars have excellent hearing which is better than ours. Cougars can pick up ultrasonic sounds and have a wider range than many mammals. They can detect high-pitched frequencies easily, which allows them to find even the smallest mouse trying to escape in the snow.

Cougars ears can move around, which helps them to pinpoint sounds from all sides.

Cougars are solitary animals and do not want to meet humans. It is unlikely that you will see one in the wild as they will be able to hear you long before you see them.

Smell

Cougars have a poor sense of smell, so they do not hunt using scent, preferring to use their eyes and ears to find their prey. A cougar has a sense of smell about thirty times as good as our own, but compared to many other predators this isn’t well developed.

Although cougars do not use their nose to hunt, they use their sense of smell when wanting to mate. Cougars will smell the urine of a female cougar to determine whether she is in heat and ready to mate.

Taste

Cougars have a limited sense of taste. Compared to the human tongue, which contains over nine thousand taste buds, a cougars tongue has just five hundred. They don’t have receptors for sweetness on their tongue and so eat very little fruit.

Cougars cannot taste a wide range of foods, so they mainly stick to birds and mammals in their diet. They lick the fur off their prey using a very rough tongue that is covered in tiny bumps.

Jacobsen’s Organ

The cougar is one of the many mammals, amphibians, and reptiles that has an organ that we don’t, the Jacobsen’s organ. This is a sensory organ in the roof of their mouth that is a tube opening. Located just behind the front teeth on the top jaw is an organ that is sensitive to chemicals in the air.

Jacobsen’s organ is used to detect chemicals left by females. You may have seen a domestic cat sniff an area with its mouth open before wrinkling up its nose, curling its lip, and closing its eyes. Although it may not look like they enjoyed the smell, this is called the flehmen response.

Touch

Cougars have another sense which is helpful for them to survive. Just like other cats, cougars have whiskers on their face. The whiskers have sensory nerve endings in them called Merkel cells.

Many nocturnal hunters use their whiskers to find their prey but these aren’t just on the face. Vibrissae near the paws can sense movement close to the ground allowing the cougar to detect differences in the air pressure.

If the cougar doesn’t see or hear their prey, then they may feel it moving close to them using their whiskers. Nerve endings in the base of the whisker detect airflow in their surroundings, allowing the cougar to pinpoint disturbances close to them.

Diet

Their diet is roughly 80% large ungulates like deer and elk. However, their diet also consists of birds and smaller mammals such as rabbits, hare, raccoon, and porcupine. Bighorn sheep are also another easy prey to the stealthy cougar.

They will also feed on smaller animals than the larger ungulates. The smaller prey includes goats, sheep, hares, rabbits, squirrels, skunks, beavers, porcupines, and various rodents, including mice and rats.

Cougars have also been seen to eat birds, either those that are already on the ground or, in some cases flying low to the ground.

Cougars change their diet according to the season. In some states, such as Idaho, cougars will eat deer in winter, but in summer will eat the much smaller but easier to catch ground squirrels.

Cougars will also change their feeding habits based on the population cycles of other animals. In British Columbia, the snowshoe hare has a ten-year population cycle. When the snowshoe hare is more abundant in the province, the cougar will switch their focus to the snowshoe hares.

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In Alberta, British Columbia, Oregon, and Utah, the main prey for the cougar is deer, but their main diet is wild hogs in Florida. Cougars in all of these states make up the rest of their diet from elk, moose, rabbits, hares, and rodents.

Cougars will eat according to what is in their location, and surprisingly, this also affects the gender of their prey. Male mule deer are more likely to fall prey to cougars due to their liking of higher elevations. This means that they share much closer to the natural habitat of cougars.

Unfortunately, pets such as dogs and cats also fall foul to cougars, so if in cougar country, keep them on a short leash.

Cougars, along with many other species of cats, will graze on grass. The grass helps to keep out parasites from their stomachs. Grass also contains folic acid, a vitamin that is hard to find in their usual meaty diet.

How Often Do Cougars Eat?

Cougars do not need to eat every day. A deer will keep an adult cougar sustained for up to sixteen days in the winter and up to three weeks in the summer.

A cougar with young to feed may need to kill a deer once a week to keep the kittens growing, but the number of kills by cougars on deer is low compared to human hunting.

Cougars can eat up to thirty pounds of meat at a time. A mother and their kittens can consume a whole deer. Cougars will cache their food in winter, with deer being left under mounds of snow for later meals.

Females stay closer to their cache than males, with males going off for days at a time to find more food. Cougars will not leave much of a deer except a few bones, skulls, and hoofs.

How Do Cougars Kill Their Prey?

Cougars are powerful creatures and can snap the neck of most large animals, including moose and elk, very quickly. Cougars usually kill by using their enormous leg muscles to leap onto their prey’s back or side and either biting through the neck or by twisting their head and snapping the neck.

Cougars have large canine teeth, and these are used to tear vertebrae apart, severing the spinal cord. The leap of a cougar can be up to thirty-two feet horizontally. However, if the prey is not caught after a few leaps, they will normally give up, and the prey will get away.

Depending on their habitat, cougars will try to either hunt in the early morning and evening or during the day or night. Most will stay out of sight during the day, preferring to strike at night.

When trying to take down a large animal, the cougar will stalk their prey, staying out of sight until it is time to pounce.

However, with small animals such as rabbits, hares, beavers, and rodents, cougars can kill them with one swipe of their large paws. Small animals are much easier to catch for cougars, which is one reason why they make up a large portion of their diet.

Larger prey such as deer is usually moved to a safer, sheltered spot to be eaten. Even though the animals they are dragging may weigh more than themselves, cougars have been seen to drag these up to a thousand feet away from the kill site.

The tongue of a cougar is rough and can be used to remove the fur off their meal. By using their tongue along with their teeth, cougars will strip the fur away.

Cougars are different from most animals as they will eat the innards first. The nutritional organs such as the heart, intestines, liver, and kidneys are eaten first.

Photo of cougar

Only once they have eaten these will they then eat the rest of the flesh. Prey that a cougar has taken down can be identified by the small hole they use to take the internal organs out.

The reason for cougars eating the most nutritious parts of the animal first is because this is where they get Vitamin A from. Without Vitamin A, they would develop skeletal problems.

Adaptations

It is not just a diverse diet that enabled cougars to evolve into a successful solitary predator. They only have a thin, fat layer beneath their skin, so developing a thick fur coat was essential in providing cougars with a way to survive in cold and snowy climates.

In South America’s warm tropical rainforests, cougars have a more reddish color to their coat, enabling them to better camouflage into the jungle’s brightly-colored environment.

For hunting purposes, cougars rely mainly on their keen vision and hearing to locate prey. Like domesticated cats, their eyesight is designed to detect movement, making hunting easier. Acute hearing allows them to detect the direction of their prey accurately.

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Being able to locate prey is not enough. Catching and killing prey quickly and efficiently is also important. Cougars have very sharp, strong teeth that are resistant to bending. Biting exerts a lot of pressure, particularly against large prey, so the teeth and jaw need to withstand such pressure without risk of injury.

A cougars canine teeth are sharp enough that only a couple of bites are needed to incapacitate prey and provide a quick death.

Cougars have evolved large feet, which allows for a more even spread of weight on the ground. This is especially useful in environments with heavy snowfall. They also have sharp retractable claws, which makes gripping prey easier and gives them the ability to climb trees.

Just like their domestic cousins, cougars can crouch low to the ground. This also means they can fit into small spaces such as caves or under bushes.

This ability to hide in small spaces is what makes the cougar so elusive. In certain areas, their presence is only known due to pawprints and droppings. It is sporadic to see a cougar in the wild because they are adept at remaining unseen.

Breeding

When it comes to reproduction, cougars do not have a breeding season. Females can breed at any time of year, although birth bursts have been noted in January and August in western states.

Generally, females are sexually mature between 1 & ½ and 2 years old, whereas males mature slower, reaching breeding age between 2 and 3 years old.

In some regions, tagged females have been known to have their first breeding as young as 17 months.

This unrestricted breeding means that new litters can be born throughout the year, every year within local populations. Juvenile females tend to find a home range either overlapping or adjacent to their mother’s.

In contrast, males will travel hundreds of miles to find a home range. This adds to the genetic diversity of the population he moves to, as he is less likely to be related to any of the females in that territory.

When a male is lost from a territory, another male will move into that area. This maintains the reproduction rate within the management area.

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Why Has The Cougars Range Declined?

As all animals do, the cougar needs enough food to survive, but the decline of their food sources is not the only reason the range of the cougar has declined.  

Humans have directly and indirectly persecuted cougars. Hunting and poisoning have been just some of the ways that man has killed cougars. 

Other, more indirect problems have also led to the decline of the range of the cougar. Logging, agriculture changes, and new human settlements have seen their range be taken away from them, pushing them into newer habitats.

Their current range is approximately 50% of their original range, which can be directly related to our influence on the planet.

What To Do If You Are Spotted By A Cougar?

As described above, there are two things that you should never do. Do not bend down and do not run. Although they do not have the lung capacity for long distances, a mountain lion can run up to 80 km/h over short distances.

It would be impossible to outrun a cougar, and with their long jumping ability, would reach you before you had a chance to get away.

However, an article in Scientific American disputes this. You can read the article here, but I will summarize it below.  

Although the California Department of Fish and Game says to not run from a lion as it may stimulate their instinct to chase, the new study is not sure.  

An expert on the evolution of predator-prey relationships at the University of California, Richard Coss studied the behavior of 185 who were attacked by cougars. These attacks were between 1890 and 2000 in the U.S. and Canada.  

His study indicated that half of the eighteen people who ran when attacked escaped injury. However, those who ran had a higher chance of being killed.  

Twenty-eight people who moved away slowly from the cougar escaped without any injury. People who stayed still were the most at risk of being attacked. These people also had the most severe injuries.

It is thought that by not moving, the cougar would believe you are vulnerable. This study seems to indicate that moving away slowly from a mountain lion is probably best; however, do not ever turn your back.

Cougars attack their prey by targeting the spine, and turning your back may be a temptation for them.  

Do your best to make yourself as big as possible. If you have a walking stick, then use this to keep them away from you, even hitting them with it if you have to. Just remember to look out for them, and if possible, keep in groups.

Cougars are beautiful creatures. They do not interact with humans very often, and although attacks and deaths do happen, these are rare. Remember the tips I have given you here, and if you do spot one, let me know.

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