Mountain Lions

The mountain lion, also known as a cougar (Puma concolor), puma, panther, or catamount, is a large feline native to the Americas. Southern California, particularly its mountainous regions, are within its range, which stretches from the Canadian Yukon to the southern Andes of South America. It is the second-heaviest cat in the New World, after the jaguar.
Secretive and largely solitary by nature, the cougar is properly considered both nocturnal and crepuscular, although there are daytime sightings. It is closely related to smaller felines, including the domestic cat.
The cougar is an ambush predator and pursues a wide variety of prey. Primary food sources are deer, mule deer, and white-tailed deer. Elk and even bull moose are taken. Other species such as the bighorn and Dall’s sheep, horse, fallow deer, caribou, mountain goat, coyote, pronghorn, and domestic livestock such as cattle and sheep are also primary food bases in many areas. It also hunts species as small as insects and rodents. This cat prefers habitats with dense underbrush and rocky areas for stalking, but can also live in open areas. The cougar is territorial and survives at low population densities. Individual territory sizes depend on terrain, vegetation, and abundance of prey. While large, it is not always the apex predator in its range, yielding to the gray wolf, American black bear, and grizzly bear. It is reclusive and avoids people. Fatal attacks on humans are rare, but in North America have been increasing in recent years as more people enter their territories.
Though capable of sprinting, the cougar hunts best by ambush, delivering a powerful leap onto the back of its prey and a suffocating neck bite. The cougar is capable of breaking the neck of some of its smaller prey with a strong bite and momentum bearing the animal to the ground.
Kills are generally estimated around one large animal every two weeks. The period shrinks for females raising young, and may be as short as one kill every three days when cubs are nearly mature around 15 months. The cat drags a kill to a preferred spot, covers it with brush, and returns to feed over a period of days.
Prolific hunting following European colonization of the Americas caused populations to drop.
Cougars are the largest of the small cats. At the same time they are the fourth largest cat. Slender and agile, adults stand about 24 to 35 inches tall at the shoulders. Adult males are around 7.9 feet long nose-to-tail and females average 6.7 feet, with overall ranges between 4.9 feet to 9 feet, nose to tail in general. Of this length, 25 to 37 inches is comprised by the tail. Males typically weigh 115 to 220 pounds, averaging 137 pounds. Females typically weigh between 64 and 141 pounds, averaging 93 pounds. Although cougars somewhat resemble the domestic cat, they are about the same size as an adult human.
The head of the cat is round and the ears are erect. Its powerful forequarters, neck, and jaw serve to grasp and hold large prey. It has five retractable claws on its forepaws (one a dewclaw) and four on its hind paws. The larger front feet and claws are adaptations to clutching prey.
Cougars can be almost as large as jaguars, but are less muscular and not as powerfully built; where their ranges overlap, the cougar tends to be smaller on average. Besides the jaguar, the cougar is on average larger than all felines apart from lions and tigers. Despite its size, it is not typically classified among the “big cats”, as it cannot roar, lacking the specialized larynx and hyoid apparatus of Panthera. Compared to “big cats,” cougars are often silent with minimal communication through vocalizations outside of the mother-offspring relationship. Cougars sometimes voice low-pitched hisses, growls, and purrs, as well as chirps and whistles, many of which are comparable to those of domestic cats. They are well known for their screams, as referenced in some of their common names, although these screams are often misinterpreted to be the calls of other animals
Cougar coloring varies but is typically plain or tawny, but ranges to silvery-grey or reddish, with lighter patches on the underbody, including the jaws, chin, and throat. Infants are spotted and born with blue eyes and rings on their tails; juveniles are pale, and dark spots remain on their flanks.
Cougars have large paws and proportionally the largest hind legs in the cat family. This physique allows it great leaping and short-sprint ability. The cougar is able to leap as high as 18 feet in one bound, and as far as 40 to 45 feet horizontally. The cougar’s top running speed ranges between 40 and 50 mph, but is best adapted for short, powerful sprints rather than long chases. It is adept at climbing, which allows it to evade canine competitors. Although it is not strongly associated with water, it can swim.
Females reach sexual maturity between one-and-a-half to three years of age. They typically average one litter every two to three years throughout their reproductive lives, though the period can be as short as one year. Females are in estrus for about 8 days of a 23-day cycle; the gestation period is approximately 91 days. Females are sometimes reported as monogamous, but this is uncertain and polygyny may be more common. Copulation is brief but frequent. Chronic stress can result in low reproductive rates when in captivity as well as in the field.
Only females are involved in parenting. Female cougars are fiercely protective of their cubs, and have been seen to successfully fight off animals as large as grizzly bears in their defense. Litter size is between one and six cubs; typically two. Born blind, cubs are completely dependent on their mother at first, and begin to be weaned at around three months of age. As they grow, they begin to go out on forays with their mother, first visiting kill sites, and after six months beginning to hunt small prey on their own. Kitten survival rates are just over one per litter.
The gray wolf and the cougar compete more directly for prey, especially in winter. Wolves can steal kills and occasionally kill the cat. One report describes a large pack of 7 to 11 wolves killing a female cougar and her kittens. Conversely, lone female or young wolves are vulnerable to predation, and have been reported ambushed and killed by cougars. Various accounts of cougars killing lone wolves, including a six-year-old female, have also been documented.
Life expectancy in the wild is reported at eight to 13 years.
Due to the expanding human population, cougar ranges increasingly overlap with areas inhabited by humans. Attacks by mountain lions on humans are very rare, as cougar prey recognition is a learned behavior and they do not generally recognize humans as prey. Attacks on people, livestock, and pets can occur when a puma habituates to humans or is in a condition of severe starvation. Between 1890 and 2004, in North America there were 88 incidents of mountain lions attacking humans, with 20 of those resulting in death. When encountering a cougar in the wild, it is not advisable to flee, as outrunning a mountain is impossible and the sight of someone taking flight may trigger the mountain lion’s predatory instinct.

Leave a Reply