The Evolution Of The Cougar


The cougar has interested me for some time now and I wanted to find out how the cougar evolved, and how the cougar has adapted to its 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 along with many other animals.

The Cougar, Puma concolor, is also called the mountain lion, puma or panther. (National Geographic, 2010). Native to Canada, Western North America, Central and Southern America, the Cougar can easily adapt to changes in its environment.

Photo of cougar

It is a large felid species, more closely related to domestic cats than their wild big cat cousins. (Shersby, 2015) Cougars cannot roar but communicate using a variety of chirps, hisses and growls, much like a pet cat.

In this article we look at how cougars have evolved, and how their diet, adaptations, and habitat allow the cougar to still be around after 11 million years.

Diet

Their diet is roughly 80% large ungulates like deer and elk (Cougar Network, 2015), however, the rest of their diet is made up of birds and smaller mammals such as rabbit, hare, racoon and porcupine.

This diverse prey range could be the reason Cougars survived extinction thousands of years ago (Culver, et al., 2000) when other large carnivores like the Saber-toothed Cat became extinct.

A study by Vanderbilt University and the University of Wyoming (De Santis & Haupt, 2014) found that other big cats alive during the Pleistocene extinction event 12,000 years ago, were picky eaters.

Photo of cougar

Other carnivores like the Saber-toothed Cat and American Lion, only hunted certain large prey and were limited by their diet. Cougars, by contrast, had a more diverse choice of prey.

Cougars also ate most or all of the carcass, including the bones. This provided them with added nutrients and vital calories to support a healthy population. The other 5 big cat species that roamed North America at that time all became extinct. 

Emigration

The same study (De Santis & Haupt, 2014) found evidence that the Cougars native to North America was “derived from a recent recolonization” of Cougars who originated from South American populations.

This repopulation occurred approximately 10,000 years ago; roughly 2000 years after the big extinction event of the Pleistocene. 

An earlier study published in 1999 (Sweanor, et al., 2000) focused on the migratory patterns of Cougars 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 the dispersal of any offspring.

Photo of cougar

Between 1985 and 1995 the researchers monitored 43 progeny, 20 males and 23 females. They noted that males dispersed much further than females and were more likely to travel through areas of non-cougar habitat. Only 13 females displayed philopatric behaviour, remaining or returning to the same area.

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.

Habitat

Cougars are an unusual animal in that they can be found in a range of different habitats. They occupy the most extensive range of any New World terrestrial mammal (De Santis & Haupt, 2014) from North-western states of Canada including British Colombia and Alberta, through the Western states of America and as far south as Patagonia, a small region between Argentine and Chile in South America.

The biomes these ranges cover are as diverse as the Cougar’s diet. Canada is a cold and often snow-covered country, with Cougars here living in dense hardwood forests. 

In contrast, Cougars living across the western states of America will experience milder temperatures, a variety of forests and a wider variety of smaller prey animals. This is different still to the warm tropical rainforests or pampas (grass plains) that South American cougars inhabit. (Wildlife Land Trust, 2011)

The ability for one species to be able to survive in such diverse environments is another clue to the mystery of their survival during the last extinction event. 

Threats 

After the Pleistocene ended some 8000 years ago, the only threats Cougars faced was other Cougars or illness. It wasn’t until the early 1500s that human intervention threatened the Cougar populations.

In response to the loss of livestock due to Cougar’s hunting, Jesuit priests offered a bounty of one bull for each Cougar the Native Americans killed. (The Cougar Fund, 2009) 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 1900s their range had been reduced to one-third of its original size.

One resilient population did survive. In Florida, there is an isolated wild population known as the Florida Panther. Thanks to protection laws and conservation the territory range is slowly increasing.

So too is the territory of the western populations of Cougar. 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. 

Photo of cougar
Cougar caught in mid leap

They do not pose a threat as Cougars normally shun human-populated areas and will flee if seen. They also stay away from urban areas, so most sightings are by farmers or people with expansive properties with lots of surrounding land or wooded areas.

In more recent times, bounty programs were slowly culled, however, the local government of each state 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. The increase in highways over the years have fragmented the Californian Cougar population, making it more difficult for breeding adults to reach each other. Most die as a result of traffic collisions attempting to cross into the mountains.

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 (Cory, 2008) so developing a thick fur coat was essential in providing Cougars with a way to survive in cold and snowy climates.

In the warm tropical rainforests of South America, Cougars have a more reddish colour to their coat, which enables them to better camouflage into the brightly-coloured environment of the jungle.

For hunting purposes, Cougars rely mainly on their keen vision and hearing to locate prey. (Kleiman & Eisenberg, 1973). Like domesticated cats, their eyesight is designed to detect movement, making hunting easier. Acute hearing allows them to accurately detect the direction of their prey.

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. (Hornocker & Negri, 2009) Biting exerts a lot of pressure, particularly against large prey, so the teeth and jaw need to be able to withstand such pressure without risk of injury.

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, as well as giving them the ability to climb trees.

Just like their domestic cousins, Cougars are able to 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 very rare to see a Cougar in the wild because they are so 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 in Western North American states, birth bursts have been noted in January and August. (Western Wildlife, 2013)

Photo of cougar

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.

A study into the effect of hunting on population mortality found that there is little to no impact on populations within small scale management areas due to compensatory immigration. (Lindzey, et al., 1994)

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

Conclusion

Due to their more generalised diet and physical attributes enabling them to inhabit a variety of biomes, Cougars have changed very little from their Pleistocene ancestors. They have retained their hunting preferences and continue to utilize more of their kills than other large carnivores.

Their resilience to cold climates has enabled them to thrive in snowy regions and also to survive by hunting smaller mammals when large ungulate like deer are not readily available.

It is commonly stated that, thanks to these evolutionary markers, the Cougar is the most adaptable solitary predator in the world.

References

Cory, A., 2008. Cougar: The Phantom Cat. [Online] 

 Available at: http://bioweb.uwlax.edu/bio203/s2008/cory_amy/adaptations.htm

Cougar Network, 2015. Cougar Facts. [Online].

Culver, M., Pecon-Slattery, J., Johnson, W. E. & O’Brien, S. J., 2000. Genomic ancestry of the American puma (Puma concolor). Journal of Heredity, pp. 186-97.

De Santis, L. & Haupt, R., 2014. Cougars’ key to survival through the Late Pleistocene extinction: insights from dental microwear texture analysis. Biology Letters, 10(4).

Hornocker, M. & Negri, S., 2009. Cougar: Ecology and Conservation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Kleiman, D. & Eisenberg, J., 1973. Comparisons of canid and felid social systems from an evolutionary perspective. Animal Behaviour, 21(4), pp. 637-659.

Lindzey, F. et al., 1994. Cougar population dynamics in Southern Utah. Journal of Wildlife Management, 58(4), pp. 619-624.

National Geographic, 2010. Cougar. [Online] 

 Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/c/cougar/

Shersby, M., 2015. Cougars. [Online] 

 Available at: https://www.discoverwildlife.com/animal-facts/mammals/facts-about-cougars/

Sweanor, L. L., Logan, K. A. & Hornocker, M. G., 2000. Cougar dispersal patterns, metapopulation dynamics, and conservation. Conservation Biology, 14(3), pp. 798-808.

The Cougar Fund, 2009. Historical Timeline. [Online] 

 Available at: https://www.cougarfund.org/education/historical-timeline/

Western Wildlife, 2013. Cougar Reproduction and Maturation. [Online] 

 Available at: http://westernwildlife.org/cougar-outreach-project/biology-behavior/

Wildlife Land Trust, 2011. Cougar. [Online] 

 Available at: http://www.wildlifelandtrust.org/wildlife/close-ups/cougar-close-up.html

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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