The Cougar has been one of my favorite animals for many years, and I realized there wasn’t much information on how the cougar evolved and adapted to their environment.
Cougars evolved as part of the feline family approximately 11 million years ago. They originated in Asia and crossed to America 8.5 million years ago using the Bering Land Bridge alongside many other animals.
The Cougar, Puma concolor, is also called the mountain lion, puma, or panther. Native to Canada, Western North America, Central, and Southern America, the Cougar can quickly adapt to its environment.
The Cougar is a large felid species, more closely related to domestic cats than their wild big cat cousins. Cougars cannot roar but communicate using chirps, hisses, and growls, much like a pet cat.
This article looks at how cougars have evolved and how their diet, adaptations, and habitat allow the cougar still to be an apex predator after 11 million years.
A cougar’s diet is roughly 80% large ungulates like deer and elk. However, their diet includes birds and smaller mammals such as rabbits, hares, raccoons, and porcupines.
This diverse prey range is one of the reasons why cougars survived extinction thousands of years ago when other large carnivores like the Saber-toothed Cat became extinct.
Vanderbilt University and the University of Wyoming found that other big cats alive during the Pleistocene extinction event 12,000 years ago did not vary their diet.
Their diet limited the Saber-toothed Cat and American Lion. Cougars, by contrast, had a more diverse choice of prey.
Cougars eat most or all of the carcass, including the bones. This gives them added nutrients and vital calories to support a healthy population. The other five big cat species that roamed North America then became extinct and were not thought to have consumed all their prey.
The same study found evidence that the cougars native to North America were “derived from a recent recolonization” of cougars from South American populations.
This repopulation occurred approximately 10,000 years ago, roughly 2000 years after the Pleistocene’s big extinction event.
An earlier study published in 1999 focused on Cougars’ migratory patterns in the San Andreas Mountains of New Mexico. Resident adults were captured, tagged, and radio-collared to enable monitoring of new immigrants to the area and any offspring’s dispersal.
Between 1985 and 1995, the researchers monitored 43 cougars made up of 20 males and 23 females. They noted that males dispersed much further than females and were more likely to travel through non-cougar habitat areas. Only 13 females displayed philopatric behavior, remaining or returning to the same place.
This movement of cougars out of their birth territory and into other cougar habitats helps reduce breeding between closely related individuals and maintains a more genetically diverse population. Any future offspring would be less prone to diseases or genetic mutations.
Cougars are unusual in that they can be found in various habitats. They occupy the most extensive range of any New World terrestrial mammal from the north-western states of Canada of British Colombia and Alberta through the western states of the U.S. and as far south as Patagonia, a small region between Argentina and Chile in South America.
The biomes these ranges cover are very diverse. Canada is cold and often snow-covered, with cougars living in dense hardwood forests.
In contrast, cougars across the western states of America will experience milder temperatures, mixed forests, and a wider variety of smaller prey animals. This differs from the warm tropical rainforests or grass plains that South American cougars inhabit.
This ability to survive in such diverse environments is another clue to the mystery of their survival during the last extinction event.
After the Pleistocene ended about 8000 years ago, the cougar’s only threats were other cougars or illnesses. It wasn’t until the early 1500s that human intervention threatened the cougar populations.
In response to the livestock loss due to cougar hunting, Jesuit priests offered a bounty of one bull for each cougar the Native Americans killed. This continued through the centuries until every US state with a cougar population had a bounty program.
Cougars in North America once inhabited most states stretching from the east coast to the west. However, due to relentless hunting and persecution, by the 1900s, their range had been reduced to one-third of its original size.
One resilient population did survive. In Florida, an isolated wild population is known as the Florida Panther. Thanks to protection laws and conservation, the territory range is slowly increasing.
The western populations of cougars are also increasing. It is more common now in rural or mountainous areas for people to catch a glimpse of a cougar as it passes through their property.
They do not pose a threat as Cougars typically shun human-populated areas and will flee if seen. They also stay away from urban areas, so most sightings are of farmers or people with expansive properties with lots of surrounding land or wooded areas.
In more recent times, bounty programs were slowly stopped. However, each state’s local government reclassified cougars as large game species, so it is still legal to hunt them during hunting season and with a permit or license.
The exception to this is California. Over the years, the increase in highways has fragmented the Californian cougar population, making it more difficult for breeding adults to reach each other. Most die due to traffic collisions attempting to cross into the mountains.
It is not just a diverse diet that enables cougars to have evolved into successful solitary predators. 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 reddish color to their coat, enabling them to camouflage into the jungle’s brightly-colored environment.
For hunting, 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. The acute hearing also allows them to accurately pinpoint their prey’s direction.
Being able to locate prey is not enough. Catching and killing them quickly and efficiently are also important. Cougars have very sharp, strong teeth. Biting exerts a lot of pressure, particularly against large prey, so the teeth and jaws must withstand the pressure without risk of injury.
A cougar’s canine teeth are sharp enough that only a few bites are needed to incapacitate prey and provide a quick death.
Cougars have large feet, allowing 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 make gripping prey easier and allow them 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 makes the cougar very elusive. Their presence is only known in certain areas due to their prints and droppings. Seeing a cougar in the wild is difficult because they are adept at remaining unseen.
When it comes to reproduction, cougars do not have a breeding season. Females can breed at any time of year, although many births have been noted in January and August in western states.
Generally, females are sexually mature between one and a half and two years old, whereas males mature slower, reaching breeding age between two and three years old.
In some regions, tagged females have been known to have their first breeding as young as seventeen months.
This unrestricted breeding means a new litter can be born throughout the year within local populations. Juvenile females tend to find a home range either overlapping or adjacent to their mothers.
Males, however, 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.
References and Further Reading
“Puma: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation” by Mark Elbroch
“Cougars: Ecology and Conservation” edited by Mark Elbroch and Paul Beier
Carnivores of the World” by Luke Hunter
“Felid Evolution: A Phylogenetic and Functional Approach” by David W. Macdonald
“The American Lion: Evolution and Extinction of the Nation’s Big Cats” by John A. Murray
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.