How Do Mountain Lions Adapt To Their Environment?

Mountain lions, also known as cougars or pumas, are native to North America. They can thrive in various landscapes and to do this mountain lions have had to adapt to their environment.

Cougars have no natural predators and can live almost anywhere.  They have no fixed breeding season, allowing them to reproduce anytime.  They have excellent sight and hearing, large territories and can live on less water in hot, desert conditions. 

To find out how mountain lions adapted to their surroundings, I wanted to do some research.  If you want to know more then please read on to see what I found out.

Photo of cougar

How Do Mountain Lions Adapt To Their Environment?

Living in various areas, mountain lions have developed many different behaviors and senses to survive. 


Mountain lions have very large eyes. They contain a high number of light sensitive cells called rods which enable them to see clearly during night. The rods help them to see their prey before the prey sees them. Extraordinary vision is essential for successful hunting, especially in environments where prey is found less frequently. 

A cougar’s eyes change color as they get older.  When a mountain lion is born they are born with piercing blue eyes.  These become yellow when they are around 16 months old. 


Photo of cougar

Apart from vision, hearing is also an important part of the pumas senses. Their sensitive ears have developed in a way that they can hear sounds other mammals do not. Combined with their excellent vision, their hearing helps them to locate their prey precisely. Excellent hearing is also a good defense mechanism and can hear danger from far away. 


Powerful jaws enable the mountain lion to kill their prey quickly and effectively. They aim for the neck. In case of small mammals, with the mountain lion instantly breaking it causing the animal to die quickly.

If biting a large prey such as deer, mountain lions will try to suffocate it if they cannot kill it with one bite. Killing prey, especially those that are larger has to be done quickly. Animals havea strong survival instinct and they will fight back, and the mountain lion could potentially get injured by its prey. 

Photo of cougar skull

Legs, Paws And Tail

Mountain lions have very large, soft paws which are very helpful in catching prey.  The paws allow them to be quiet when moving so that prey won’t hear them and run away. Their paws are also very strong and have powerful claws. This allows them to climb trees or drag heavy prey to a safe spot. 

They also have a long tail which enhances balance when jumping and navigating rough rocky terrain. The long tail also gives the mountain lion the ability to change direction swiftly while chasing prey without falling over. 

Cougars have strong, muscular back legs that are longer than their front legs. Their legs enable to jump very high up to about 18 feet (5.49 m). It also enables them to launch swiftly and quiet. As a species who stalks their prey from ambush, their legs are an important feature for successful hunting. 


Mountain lions can breed at almost any time of the year. Breeding season varies in different locations. This gives the mountain lion the opportunity to use the natural resources, food, and water availability, to increase the chances of young pumas to reach adulthood. 

Photo of cougar

Females that are physically ready to reproduce will not do so if they do not possess adequate territory. Having a safe and well-known place for hunting and nursing also increases the survival rate of cubs.

How Do Mountain Lions Survive In Mountains?

In North America, mountain lions can be found in different mountain ranges. You may be able to see them in higher parts of the Rocky Mountains and other places with similar geographical features. 

Mountain terrain has two of the most important features for cougars, prey and cover. In the mountains, cougars feed mainly on deer. Mountains also provide water and vegetation that deer feed on. Mountains make the perfect hunting ground for cougars, with woods providing excellent hiding places. 

Photo of cougar
Cougar in the mountains, mountain lion, puma

Mountain lions stalk their prey and to do that successfully, terrain has to provide cover. Mountains offer woods, bushes, all kind of thick vegetation, and higher up the mountains there are rocks and cliffs. 

Hunting for deer is very important, especially for cougars with young cubs. The energy used to catch a deer can be restored after feeding.  The food will also provide energy to produce milk for her cubs.

Cougars also hunt smaller mammals like rabbits. This is not as energy efficient as hunting for deer, especially for a nursing cougar, so mountains are excellent habitats for finding larger prey. 

Cougars live alone except for the few days when mating. They hold large territories, sometimes more than 500 square miles per animal. These large territories enable them to follow their prey as deer move to feed. 

Knowing their territory is important to a cougar. They learn about best hiding places and where to find prey. The size of the cougar’s territory depends on the amount of prey in the area. 

Territories of different cougars can overlap. This happens quite often in places with higher number of cougars. The ability to share parts of their territories enables them to focus more on hunting and conserving energy, than fighting over the territory. The exception to this is mating season. 

No matter which territory they choose, mountain lions will always try to be away from human settlements in remote and secluded areas. 

Mountain lions can often be found in “transition” areas. These are places where woods mix with rocky areas or where bushes meet the river. These areas give the cougar the ability to hide more efficiently when stalking. Research has shown that the shape and thickness of vegetation is more important than type of vegetation. 

Mountains provide a huge selection of potential dens where female cougars can give birth to their cubs. These areas have to be hidden from danger and hard to access for other animals. A safe den is very important in the first few days after birth. 

Cougars do not have permanent dens when they have no cubs. When cubs are about 5 months old, they start roaming around the territory with their mother. 

How Do Cougars Survive In The Desert? 

At first sight, deserts seem like lifeless environments. It is hard to believe that a big cat can survive in those places, but cougars are so adaptable that deserts are actually a very good place to find them. 

Although prey and water are harder to find, desert topography provides excellent areas for hiding and stalking. Their coat color blends in perfectly with most desert habitats.  Rocks and canyons provide shelter and enable the cougar to stand on higher ground to observe and ambush their prey. 

Photo of cougar

Mountain lions are not picky eaters. Cougars will hunt for almost anything including rodents which can be found in the desert. 

Cougars are known to eat sheep, porcupines, coyotes, raccoons, skunks mountain goats, caribou and sometimes even birds.

Deserts offer caves, holes and cavities that cougars can use as dens, including for giving birth to their young. Research has that cougars which adapted to desert conditions can survive on less water than those in mountainous regions. 

In the desert, pumas will look for a water source. These places will also attract other animal species where cougars will hunt them. Shortage of water forces different mammals to go to the same watering holes. Cougars will patiently wait in cover and attack when ready. In the desert, cougars will feed on smaller prey and will hunt more frequently. 

Mountain lions are mostly nocturnal animals.  During the day they will hide from the sun to avoid possible dehydration.

Prey is scattered widely in deserts and so the size of a cougar’s territory will be larger. Mountain lions have to patrol and cover larger distances in order to find a location with a higher number of potential prey. Territories in the desert can overlap with more than one mountain lion.


Not many animal species have the ability to survive in many harsh habitats, but the evolution of their senses and anatomy makes the mountain lion an extraordinary predator.

Cougars can be found wherever prey is.  Not having permanent dens shows how adaptable these animals are, even when having cubs just a few months old. 

Cougars can really thrive in various locations. Most animals live in fixed habitats.  Some live in forests, some in plains, but most of them can barely survive outside those locations. 

Mountain lions developed certain adaptations and skills that enable them to live in all kinds of places. There are cougars living on the coast and some live in swamps. 

Cougars have no natural predators and this allows them to live almost anywhere in North America 


Bernhard Grzimek, Schlager, N., Olendorf, D. and American (2003). Grzimek’s animal life encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale.

Busch, R.H. (2004). The Cougar Almanac. Lyons Press.

Wilson, D.E. (1999). The Smithsonian book of North American mammals. Washington: Smithsonian Inst. Press.

Nowak, R.M. and Walker, E.P. (1991). Walker’s mammals of the world. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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