The Majestic and Mysterious Cougars

Article & Images by Christina Bush

Scientific name:  Felis Concolor

Both loved and feared throughout history are the majestic and mysterious big cats known as Cougars.  These lean and muscular creatures are the largest wild cats in North America and boast the most extensive distribution of any non-human land mammal in the Western Hemisphere.   They weigh between 110-180 pounds, varying in size based on the availability of their prey.  Their lifespan in the wild is around 12 years and up to 25 years in captivity.   Globally the cougar has earned over 200 different names, more than any other animal.  The most common names include mountain lion, puma, catamount, panther, mountain screamer, king cat, ghost cat, sneak cat, mountain devil, silver lion, carajou, American lion and the Cherokee Indians call them "lords of the forest".  Because of their respect for these cats, the ancient Incan city of Cusco was even designed in the shape of a cougar, or puma as they called them.

These cats are native to Asia, America and Africa. Cougars can now be found from the Canadian Yukon to Patagonia at the tip of South America and from sea level to 16,000 feet in the South American Andes. According to Defenders of Wildlife, there are an estimated 30,000 cougars in the western United States.  They used to roam all over North America, but have been hunted to extinction in all but a few areas. East of the Mississippi, cougars are generally presumed extirpated- victims of overhunting, predator control campaigns, and habitat loss.  They have been poisoned, prized by hunters and despised by farmers who have suffered livestock losses because of them. 

In the early 1900s most states in the West began paying bounties for killing cougars.  From 1907-1963, between 200-450 cougars were killed in California every year. By the dawn of the 20th century they were eliminated from nearly all of their range in the Midwest and Eastern United States.   One sub-species, the Florida Panther, survives though it is critically endangered.  According to the most recent census, there are only 87 Florida Panthers left living in the wild.  Although these cats are just one species, the United States separates them into three groups - the Cougar, the Florida Panther, and the Eastern Cougar.  The Florida Cougar and the Eastern Cougar are both critically endangered and given protection under the Endangered Species Act.  Cougars that inhabit the western part of the United States are allowed to be hunted, except in California. 

Cougars have a keen sense of hearing and sight, strong jaws, sharp claws, a powerful chest, an exemplary stalking ability and can jump up to 20 feet vertically and 45 feet horizontally in one leap using their tail, which is nearly 3 feet long, as a rudder.  This means they can jump over a school bus the long way.  Their hind legs give them an incredible horizontal leaping ability, second only to the snow leopard.   Their front feet are large and give them a firmer grip on their prey.  There are five claws on the front paws that are retractable and allow the cat to catch and hold its prey securely.  Males are larger than females and their coats are light brown, tawny and, in a few cases, black.  Ears are round, erect, and move to focus on sounds.  The tail has a black spot on the end. 

These versatile predators are the fastest animals in North America and can run up to forty miles per hour.  They are carnivores whose diet consists of deer, elk, birds, rabbits, raccoons, beavers, mice and other small mammals.  Some of these cats even eat porcupines, quills and all, apparently without any harm.  They will eat just about any animal they can capture, but deer is, by far, the top meal of choice.  Cougars can eat up to ten pounds of meat each day, which is equivalent to 40 hamburgers, and generally feed just once or twice a week.  

Solitary, shy and territorial, cougars actively avoid other cats except during courtship.  They are rarely seen by humans and their ranges can stretch over 100 square miles.  They prefer to live in areas in wild places like mountains, forests or swamps, showing a preference for canyons, dense brush, desert climates and the wetlands of the Everglades.  While they do occasionally attack people -usually children or solitary adults- statistics show that, on average, there are only four attacks and one human fatality each year in all of the U.S. and Canada.  (National Geographic)

Seemingly invisible, cougars are active hunters and will travel long distances in search of food, hunting alone. They stalk, ambush and attack their victims from behind breaking the neck by biting it at the base of the skull, making a lethal kill.  Many times the big cats will bury their prey, leave it and come back to feed on it at a later time.  Despite their prolific hunting profile, cougars are not at the top of the food chain in many of their ecosystems.  Because they face stiff competition from bears, wolves and jaguars, the cougars have evolved and adapted.  They have developed unique survival strategies in many parts, including the ability to swim and climb trees.   

Females have two to five kittens per litter, which the mother raises alone.  The kittens nurse for the first two months and then start traveling with their mother while she teaches them to hunt.  They will remain with her for 1 1/2 to 2 years and then wander off to be on their own.  The youngsters have spots all over their bodies, which fade away as they mature.  The cougar resembles smaller felines in its physical makeup and is often not included in the category of big cats due to its inability to roar.  Instead, the large feline purrs like a house cat.  It sometimes said that they are related to the Cheetah due to the rudder-like tail and bodily structure, though there is no evidence to validate this.  Their call is distinctive and can be heard for miles.  

Cougar numbers are declining in the wild due to the loss of habitat and prey.  Conflicts with humans also do not bode well for them with people constantly pushing into their territories.  In the long run, if humans are to successfully conserve cougars in self-sustaining populations, then the people living there or impacting their wild territories will have to be educated and caring.  Research from North and South America has shown that the disappearance of cougars can have profound impacts on the ecosystems that lead to a loss of biodiversity.  As leading cougar researchers Ken Logan and Linda Sweanor conclude in their book ‘Desert Puma’,  the cougar is “a model keystone species on which to design landscape-level conservation strategies because they strongly influence energy flow in ecosystems; they are a potent selective force on prey animals; they modulate prey populations; thus they indirectly affect herbivory on plant communities; they influence competitive interactions between herbivores; and their persisting populations are dependent on expansive wild landscapes”.

Now considered predominantly a western animal, cougars have become a symbol of the last wilderness frontier. Outside of national parks and other protected areas, these marvelous cats are finding fewer and fewer places to take refuge. It is crucial that we recognize there are limits to the cougars capacity to survive in the face of mounting pressures and take action to ensure their long-term survival.  

"The mountain lion works a strong magic in the imagination of many Americans.  
It is the ultimate loner, a renegade presence in the wildest canyons and wildest mountains, the sign of everything that is remote from us, everything we have not spoiled.   -  Donald Schueler 

Expressions of India Magazine - October 2011 Issue