We can find cougars in both North and South America, all the way from Canada down to southern Chile. These big cats, which you may also know as the panther, puma, or mountain lion, are the fourth biggest cat species worldwide, with males weighing up to 72 kilograms.
Although I’ve never seen a puma in the wild, I have watched my fair share of animal documentaries that have featured these big cats in all their glory.
This article will discuss everything there is to know about cougars, including their natural habitats, where they got their long list of names, their behavior out in the wild, and their hunting patterns.
Naming and Etymology
For English speakers, we typically only know the name of animals by their English common names, in this instance, the cougar. But would you believe that the cougar actually has over 40 English names alone, earning itself a Guinness World Record for the animal with the greatest number of names? Pretty cool, right?
In terms of the cougar’s English names, you may know it by its more common title, the puma, or even the mountain lion, catamount, or panther. No matter which name you use; however, they all relate to the same animal.
Now, the origin of the name cougar is slightly confusing, so bear with me. The word cougar comes from the Portuguese word çuçuarana, which was originally taken from the Tupi language.
Fast forward to the 17th century, and the cougar got the name cuguacu ara. In 1774 the name was converted again to cuguar and finally modified to the English word cougar. See, I told you it was confusing.
Taxonomy and Evolution
Although we just discussed the cougar’s English names, it also has a scientific name, which initially in 1771 was Felis concolor.
Felis concolor simply meant a cat with a long tail of uniform color, but in 1834, a Scottish naturalist instead placed the cougar in the Puma genus to give it its current scientific name, Puma concolor.
Until the late 1980’s scientists believed that there were a possible 32 cougar subspecies; however, after genetic analysis of the specimen’s DNA, they found only six.
With that being said, although they initially believed there to be six subspecies, including the Florida panther, in 2017, the Cat Classification Taskforce or the Cat Specialist Group, narrowed the subspecies down to just two, the South American cougar and the North American cougar.
South American Cougar
The South American cougar (P.c. concolor) lives in northern and western South America, from Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru to Venezuela and Colombia.
North American Cougar
The North American cougar (P.c. couguar) lives in the Western United States, Western Canada, and Southern Florida.
The cougar is part of the Felidae family, which began in Asia roughly 11 million years ago. So you’re probably thinking, how did these big cats get all the way into America if they originated from Asia?
Well, when the most recent ice age lowered the sea levels, a strip of land that we know as the Bering land bridge connected Asia to North America. This bridge then allowed the cougar’s ancestors to pass over into the North American continent roughly 8 million years ago.
Further studies into pumas have found that North American cougar populations are from a small ancestral group, suggesting that the species became locally extinct around 10,000 years, leading to the South American cougar repopulating the area not long after.
Characteristics of Cougars
I personally think that all big cats are majestic, and that is no exception for the cougar. Cougars have round heads and ears that slightly draw back.
Although looking at them, they just look like average house cats, but bigger; these animals are killing machines with serious neck and jaw muscles to help them hold onto large prey and four retractable claws on their large feet that aid in clinging on to their next meal.
The cougar’s scientific name, Puma concolor, is extremely fitting for these big cats, as the cougar is all one color, aside from its jaw, chin, throat, underbody, and tip of its tail.
The color of a catamount will typically range from grey to red, but there have also been sightings of an extremely rare leucistic cougar who was pure white from head to tail.
Of all the cat species worldwide, the cougar is the fourth largest, with adult male cougars standing up to 90cm at the shoulder, measuring up to 2.4 meters long, and weighing anywhere from 53 to 72 kilograms.
However, as with many other cat species, female adult cougars are slightly smaller than males and can weigh up to 48 kilograms.
Oddly enough, the further you go toward the equator, the smaller the pumas will get, so all of you living in Canada better watch out, as you’ve got some of the biggest cougars on the planet, with two of the largest cougars ever caught coming from British Colombia which weighed 86.4 and 95.5 kilograms.
When you compare the cougar to standard jaguars or the black panther, cougars are less muscular, but depending on where the jaguars live, the two can weigh the same amount.
Distribution, Habitat, and Geographic Range
Of all the land animals in the Americas, the cougar has the largest range as the species spans from Canada down to the southern Andes. As the range of cougars is so diverse, so are the habitats in which they live.
For example, in Southern California, catamounts will live in deserts and in coastal forests, whereas in the mountains, the cougar tends to stick to the steep canyons and dense brush.
From forests and deserts to mountains and river basins, the cougar will basically live anywhere as long as there are adequate prey species.
Unlike other animals who may be easy to track, cougars make very little impact on the ground, resulting in soft track marks that are almost invisible, especially on hard snow and earth.
In addition, when a puma walks, it fully retracts its claws to preserve its sharpness. Not all big cats have the ability to retract their claws, the cheetah being one of them. So the fact that the cougar walks on just the pads of their feet means you’d likely not even know if you were walking where a cougar once had.
You may have seen your dog or cat flick soil over their droppings; I know I certainly have, and I’ve never understood why until now.
Animals cover their droppings with loose soil to help hide them from potential predators, and you’re probably thinking, what animal is a cougar hiding from? Well, that would be us. And grizzly bears.
Thanks to a cougar’s molars, they’re able to chew their way through bone and hide, meaning if you get up close to their droppings, it’s likely you’d see fragments of bone and hair.
A daybed is an area where cougars will rest, protect themselves from the weather, and raise their young. Daybeds are typically in caves, rock outcrops, forested areas, or under fallen trees.
Although a mother cougar may stay in one bed until her kittens are mobile, for the most part, a cougar’s daybed site will frequently change, and it will often be in close proximity to kill sites.
If you have a house cat, your furniture will likely have little scratch marks. But, just like house cats, cougars also scratch trees and stumps to ultimately mark their territory and warn off rival cougars.
Scientists believe that when a puma scratches at a tree, it leaves behind a scent from its paws in the bark, which then tells other cougars that this is their territory.
If you live in cougar country, be sure to check out the trees on your next forest walk. If there are scratches 4 to 8 feet above the ground that are deep, long, and parallel, then they were probably put there by a cougar.
Typically cougars will purr, hiss, growl, and chirp, but during the mating season, moans and loud wails are also part of their vocabulary.
When males compete to win a female’s heart, the sounds that come from the animals have been likened to a woman’s scream, the sound of someone in serious pain, and a child crying.
Cougar Animal Facts
Below are some interesting facts relating to the cougar.
- The cougar is a Guinness World Record holder.
- Cougars have a poor sense of smell, so they hunt mainly with their ears and eyes.
- Catamounts can jump up to 18 feet high from a sitting position and leap over 40 feet.
- Adult pumas prefer to live alone.
- Cougars are the fourth largest cat species in the world.
- Puma kittens are born with their eyes shut, but at two weeks, they will open and reveal their baby-blue color.
- Although adult cougars are all one color, cougar kittens are born with spots to help them camouflage and hide from predators.
- The cougar can run up to 45 mph.
Behavior And Ecology
Cougars are ultimately a keystone species in the Western Hemisphere, which is a species that helps hold the ecosystem together. Unfortunately, thanks to the panthers’ messy eating habits and poor table manners, they leave behind lots of food from their kills for other carnivores to enjoy.
Furthermore, they also help regulate the populations of their prey animals and encourage other predators to move along.
Hunting and Diet – What Do Cougars Eat?
Cougars are carnivores through and through, and they typically prefer to hunt large mammals such asmoose, elk, wild sheep, mule deer, and mountain goats.
Occasionally, pumas will also take smaller prey like smaller carnivores, birds, and rodents. Some cougars are even partial to domesticated dogs and cats, so if you live in an area where cougars are present, be sure to keep an eye on your beloved pets.
Depending on where cougars live will ultimately determine their main food sources. For example, in Yellowstone National Park, elk and mule deer were at the top of the cougar’s menu, whereas in Alberta, Canada, ungulates were the cougar’s number one choice.
The Southern American cougar, however, more commonly hunts down smaller prey, like large rodents and capybaras, likely because of the competition with the jaguar, who takes all the large animal species.
As an ambush predator, the catamount stalks its prey through vegetation. It hides behind covered spots before leaping onto the back of the animal and suffocating it by biting around its neck.
On average, these big cats will make a kill once every two weeks, taking the kill to a hidden spot, covering it with a bush, and feeding on it over a period of a few days.
For female cougars raising young, however, well they have their work cut out, as their schedule can include one hunt every three days to feed their growing cubs.
Interactions With Other Predators
Luckily for the cougar, they’re almost at the top of the food chain, as aside from humans, there are no other species who will try to hunt down a mature cougar in the wild.
In saying that, altercations between pumas and other species do occur, such as in Yellowstone National Park, where the grizzly bear, black bear, and grey wolf would try to chase cougars away from their hard-earned kills.
Social Spacing and Interactions
Cougars are mostly solitary animals, like many other big cat species, and only mother cougars and kittens will live together in groups, crossing paths very rarely with other adults.
But, although they don’t exactly like the company of others, cougars will share their kills with other pumas to form communities in dominant male territories.
The size of a cougar’s home range depends on the vegetation, terrain, and how much prey is available in that particular area. For adult males, they can dominate anywhere from 150 km2 to 1000 km2, with a females range being half that.
Male ranges often overlap with female ranges, but they never overlap with males. To prevent other males from entering their territory, male pumas will go as far as to create barriers around their area with leaves marked with urine and feces.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
Female cougars will reach sexual maturity from 18 months to three years of age, coming into estrus for eight days of their average 23-day cycle.
During her estrus period, a female panther will mate with multiple partners relatively frequently, which can mean a cougar’s litter can consist of kittens with completely different fathers.
After a gestation period of 82 to 103 days, a mother cougar will give birth to one to six kittens; however, the average is usually two.
Cougar kittens are born blind and are completely dependent on their mother until three months of age when they begin to wean.
Keeping them in caves and alcoves, the mother cougar protects her young as best she can until they’re old enough to head out with her to explore kill sites and hunt on their own.
In total, young catamounts will stay with their mothers for up to two years before heading off and finding a territory of their own.
The cougar is on the IUCNs Red List as the least concern species as the populations in the world are still plentiful and not necessarily threatened with extinction.
In many of the cougar’s habitats, including Costa Rica, California, and Brazil, hunting is prohibited. In Canada, Peru, Mexico, and the United States, hunting is regulated, which is partly why cougar numbers remain as they are.
With that being said, although pumas as an entire species aren’t currently under any threats, the cougars living in Florida, the Florida panthers, are protected by the Endangered Species Act as there are just over 200 individuals left in the wild.
In the wild, life expectancy for cougars is 8 to 13 years, but more average of 8 to 10 years. In captivity, however, the age of cougars rises significantly, with many individuals living into their late teens, with some even reaching 20 years old.
Cougars, in their natural habitats, are vulnerable to disease, loss of habitat, loss of prey due to poaching, traffic accidents, and competition with other animals, which can all abruptly end their life at any given time.
Regulations for Cougar Hunting
Many countries in which the cougar lives have prohibited hunting the big cats, but there are some that allow cougar hunting in an effort to manage populations by licensed hunters during early and late hunting seasons.
To hunt pumas, you must have a registered cougar license and an unused cougar tag.
Relationships With Humans
Cougar or puma attacks on humans were once unheard of, but with human populations expanding into the cougar’s natural habitats, there are instances on humans, albeit very rare.
Attacks on Humans
In North America, cougars don’t typically recognize humans as prey, but attacks will occur in the late spring and summer when young cougars are on the search for new territory and if a cougar is in a severe state of starvation.
From 1890 to 1990, North America saw 53 reported cougar attacks on humans, with that number rising to 88 attacks in 2004. Many of these attacks occurred in California, British Columbia, and in Washington State due to dense catamount and human populations.
In South America, cougar attacks are significantly fewer, with only a few reported cases since 1877. However, Cougars will attack when they feel cornered, if a human runs and initiates their instinct to chase, or if a person stands still or lies down on the ground.
If you ever come close to a cougar, make intense eye contact, shout as loud as you can, and make yourself as big as possible, waving your arms in the air so the cougar sees you as something to be scared of and retreats.
Predation on Domestic Animals
Cougars were once a ranch’s worst nightmare as hundreds of animals like calves, sheep, and lambs died due to cougars in 1990 in Texas alone. In 1992 Nevada, pumas were actively hunting horses, foals, goats, and sheep, at times even killing 20 sheep in one frenzied attack.
People began hunting adult cougars to save their livestock, and although it seemed like a good idea at times, it just made way for young cougars to take the place of the older cougars who had learned to avoid people altogether.
The indigenous peoples of the Americas admired the puma because of its sheer grace and power.
In Cusco, the Inca city in Peru, the shape of the city is said to be designed in the shape of a cougar, which also gave its name to the Inca people and regions.
Additionally, some cultures, like the Algonquins and the Ojibwe, believe the cougar to be wicked, whereas other cultures, like the Cherokee, see the cougar as sacred.
Where Do Mountain Lions Live?
Mountain lions, or cougars, live in North and South America in a range of habitats, including rocky canyons, mountains, deserts, and coastal forests.
What Color Are Cougars?
The color of a cougar varies, from a reddish brown color to an almost grey.
Although the majority of their bodies are all one color, the tip of their tail is usually darker, and their underbelly, nose, chin, and the inside of their ears are white. As babies, cougars are born with spots, which eventually fade over time.
When Do Cougars Hunt?
Cougars hunt from dusk to dawn; however, they will also hunt during the day.
Is a Mountain Lion a Carnivore?
Mountain lions, or cougars, are carnivores as they will eat a range of prey species, from moose and elk to large rodents and even an armadillo.
When Are Mountain Lions Most Active?
Although you may see a mountain lion at any time of day, they’re most active from dusk to dawn, as this corresponds with deer activity.
Cougars are magnificent animals, and although they aren’t currently on the endangered list, there are things we can do to prevent it from ever happening, with the most important being petitioning to have the cougar taken off hunting lists and placed on the list of protected species.
By being a protected species, it would mean that it is illegal to hunt or capture a cougar unless it is a threat.
If you do live in cougar country, make sure you’re always on the lookout for pumas. When walking your dog, always keep it on a leash, and keep younger children close as they’re the biggest target in the catamount fatal attack.
All in all, more people die each year from snake bites than cougar attacks, so you should have nothing to worry about. I hope you have enjoyed finding out more about cougars. Leave a comment down below with your favorite piece of cougar information.