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 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 easily 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 various 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.
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.
This diverse prey range could be the reason 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 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.
The same study found evidence that the cougars native to North America were “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 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 progeny, 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 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.
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 from the north-western states of Canada, including British Colombia and Alberta, through the western states of the U.S. 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, various forests, and a wider variety of smaller prey animals. This is different from the warm tropical rainforests or grass plains that South American cougars inhabit.
One species’ 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 some 8000 years ago, cougar’s only threats were other cougars or illness. It wasn’t until the early 1500s that human intervention threatened the cougar populations.
In response to the livestock loss due to cougars 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, 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.
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 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 as a result of traffic collisions attempting to cross into the mountains.
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.
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.
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.
Due to their more generalized diet and physical attributes, enabling them to inhabit various 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 survive by hunting smaller mammals when large ungulates 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.