- HB Length: 100-150 cm (39-59″)
- Tail Length: 60-90 cm (24-35″)
- Height: 60-76 cm (24-30″)
- Weight: 30-80 kg (66-176 lbs)
- Pop. Trend: Decreasing
The Cougar Puma concolor probably has as many different common names as they do geographical races: Puma, Mountain Lion, Florida Panther, Painter, Mexican Lion, Catamount and Red Tiger to mention a few. There have been over 30 subspecies of Cougar described by various authorities, but these are mostly local variations or races that gradually blend into one another over their range. Recent genetic studies have indicated that the current subspecies should be reduced to six.
These cats are commonly called Puma in Latin America, and either Cougar or Mountain Lion in the north. The term Panther is used for any cat of uniform colour and was the name given to these big cats by early settlers in Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Because of their immense range, there is a wide variation in coat colour, from a buff or sandy brown to reddish brown, through to a light silver and slate grey. There have never been any authenticated reports of melanistic Cougar. The coat is fairly short and coarse, being somewhat darker on the back, and a pale buff on the chest, belly, and inner sides of the legs. Overall, the coat is fairly uniform in colour and is essentially unmarked. Their head is fairly small, with dark brown to black patches on the muzzle, and irises of green gold to yellow brown. The ears are short and rounded, and grey to black on the backs. The forelegs are shorter than the hind legs, and the footpads are relatively large. Their tail is fairly long and slim, gradually darkening towards the tip. The cats found in Central and South America are smaller than those in North America.
Cougar have the largest range of any New World cat, larger than any other terrestrial mammal in the western hemisphere. They roam from the Yukon in Canada to the extreme southern tip of South America. These big cats range through a wide variety of habitats, from coniferous, deciduous and tropical forest, through swamps, grasslands, and semi-deserts, from sea level to altitudes of 4,500 metres.
Their varied habitats suggest a tolerance of environmental conditions rare among mammals. Habitat use can be highly seasonal, following prey migrations to higher or lower elevations.
In much of their Latin American range, they share many habitats with the Jaguar Panthera onca, and may favour more open habitat than the larger cat. Both species however, have been found in dense forest.
Radio telemetry studies in Chile found Cougar home ranges to be up 100 km2, with the cats often covering up to 16 km in a few hours.
Population densities have been estimated at no more than 4 adults per 100 km2 in North America. In South America, densities range from 0.5-8 adults/100 km2.
Incredibly adaptable and very athletic, Cougar have great leaping ability and are good climbers and swimmers. Sight is their most acute sense, hearing is well developed, but their sense of smell is not particularly acute.
Primarily nocturnal and crepuscular, activity peaks at dusk and dawn. The bulk of their travelling and hunting is done at night, and their activity patterns are related to the activity of their prey and the concealment offered by the darkness. They hunt over a wide area, carefully stalking their prey and leaping on its back, or seizing it after a short, swift dash. Large kills are often covered with scraped over vegetation and dirt, and the cats remain in the vicinity, returning frequently to feed. However, they seldom eat carcasses killed by other animals.
Cougar have survived because they will eat anything, including marine mammals along Canada’s western coast. In North America, deer make up 60%-80% of their diet, but in Florida where deer numbers are low, they eat smaller prey. Small to medium sized prey are more important in their diet in tropical portions of their range.
In a shrub ecosystem in Chile, hares made up 96% of their prey. Like all generalist feeders, the Cougar will eat whatever is most abundant in any given ecosystem.
Females are seasonally polyestrous, and there are no sharply defined breeding seasons in most of their range. Most births in North America occur from late winter to spring. The receptive period can last up to nine days, and male-female associations occur only during this time. Females usually give birth every other year. One to six, usually two to four, cubs are born in a cave, rock crevice, hollow log, under an over turned tree, or in thick vegetation. The gestation period is 80 – 96 days. Cubs weigh 226 – 453 grams at birth and are spotted with dark brown spots over a brown buff coat. The spots gradually fade as they grow. Their blue eyes change to the greenish yellow or yellowish brown of the adults by 16 months of age. The eyes open at nine to ten days, they begin walking around 14 days, and nurse for three months or more, but begin to take some meat at six weeks of age. The young cats will remain with the adult female at least through their first winter, and often up to 18 – 24 months. Litter mates may travel and hunt together for a few months after leaving the female. Sexual maturity is attained at around two and a half years of age for females, but males take at least three years. They have lived to 20 years.
Although populations have been absent from most of midwestern North America for more than 100 years, the combination of long-distance dispersal and a significant increase in presence of cougars in the Midwest since 1990 suggests an eastward range expansion. In 2009, the province of Ontario in Canada officially declared the eastern Cougar now living in that province.
The only area where Cougar survived historical extirpation is in a single population in the Everglades forests of southern Florida. In an effort to help restore the depleted genetic make-up of the Florida Panther, in the mid-1990’s officials released a few Texas cats into south Florida to strengthen the gene pool. The main threat to these cats today is being killed on the many highways and roads in the area, and loss of habitat due.
Cougar are increasingly found in habitat patches that have been fragmented by human activities such as highways, ranches and farms. Restored habitat corridors are vital to link these isolated populations. Highway crossings and underpasses are also required to save Cougar living in heavily populated areas such as California and Florida.
As one of the top predators in the food chain, the Cougar has been persecuted unmercifully by man. A combination of guns, poisons, snares, traps, and hunting dogs have been used in this persecution, often under the guise of government sanctioned predator control (bounty) programs. Farmers and ranchers have had a running feud with these cats for decades, and land use and stock management practices must be changed before this situation can be improved.
In many Latin American countries, Cougar are shot on sight or subject to bounty control programs even though the size of their population there is unknown.
Various native peoples in North and South America have revered the Cougar as they have the Jaguar Panthera onca. The ancient Peruvian city of Cuzco was laid out in the shape of a Cougar. The Cochiti Indians of New Mexico carved life sized statues of this cat out of stone and created a mesa top shrine in their honour. Great Lakes tribes believed their tail whipped up waves and storms, and Christian missionaries in southern California found the Cougar to be a significant obstacle in the establishment of missions. Natives so respected the big cat that they refused to hunt it or protect livestock herds from its predations.
The explorer Columbus was one of the first to call them lions because of their resemblance to female African lions, which he had seen before. Males were assumed to be fierce, elusive creatures because explorers saw only “maneless” female lions.
See also Safety in Cougar Country if you share habitat with these big cats.
Range map IUCN Red List 2008