Here is a chapter from my upcoming book on the cat family’s international lineages, due out on May 21st.
Three large cats have tawny, lion-like coats instead of the spotted or striped fur that this family of predators is famous for.
The first, of course, is lions. The second species resembles them so closely that early European New World explorers thought they were seeing lionesses and decided that the males must be “scaredy cats,” hiding in the forest from men.
Those explorers were wrong about a few other things, too.
But “mountain lion” is only of this beautiful cat’s many names.
Puma concolor. This widely distributed cat has some subspecies, which gives them a third scientific name. However, those are debatable and more relevant to taxonomists and biologists than to us.
Known from Tierra del Fuego to Canada under many names, including (but definitely not limited to):
- Mountain lion (particularly in California)
- Puma (scientific literature as well as in Spanish-speaking America)
- Cougar (Pacific Northwest and other regions)
- Panther, because of its plain coat
- Painter (Southeast US)
- Catamount (Vermont)
- León (Central and South America)
- Leão (parts of Brazil)
And in West Texas, apparently, “little cat yetis”
Data are from the Cat Specialist Group (CSG) website unless otherwise noted.
- Weight: 60 to 180 pounds. There’s a connection to latitude here. The smallest mountain lions live in equatorial rainforests, the largest in Canada and Chile. (CSG, Sunquist and Sunquist)
- Body length: 3 to 5 feet.
- Tail: 2 to 3 feet.
- Coat: Newborns often have stripes or spots, but these fade away into a solid silvery-gray, tawny, reddish, or dark brown (this varies even among siblings), with white chin, throat, and belly fur. In addition to some light black markings on the head, the tip of a mountain lion’s tail is black, as are the backs of its ears. I could not find any confirmed report of a black mountain lion, though “black panthers” (melanistic leopards) are fairly common in Asia.
- Longevity: In the wild, up to 12 years; in captivity, over 20 years. (California Department of Fish and Game)
- Litter size: 1 to 5 kittens, usually 2 to 3.
- Total numbers: This wary wild cat is difficult to count, but there are an estimated 10,000 mountain lions in the western US and 3,500 to 5,000 in Canada. No one knows how many there are in Central and South America
Features unique to this cat:
- Rounded pupils, as well as a round head with small ears, make this human-sized cat easy to anthropomorphize
- It’s the second largest New World native cat, after the jaguar, and fourth largest cat in the world
- Mountain lions have proportionately the longest hind legs of any member of the cat family.
- Zoologists are still trying to understand why these cats, and these alone, have a big-cat body build but small-cat features associated with the feet and head, as well as the ability to purr
- Puma concolor has the largest geographic range of any native Western land mammal (from the tip of South America up into the British Columbia mountains). (Cat Specialist Group)
Where found in the wild:
These beautiful cats once inhabited the Americas from coast to coast (the orange area up above).
Over the last 200 years they were thought to be eradicated in eastern and central North America, except for a small population in Florida. However, when their numbers stabilized in the West and began to increase after legal protections were established during the second half of the 20th century, mountain lions apparently began to move eastward again.
There were more than 170 confirmed occurrences in midwestern North American between 1990 and 2008, but it’s not known yet whether breeding females are settling in. That’s the key factor to successful recolonization. (LaRue and Nielsen)
Closest cat-family relatives:
Not lions (Panthera leo) — technically, Puma concolor is not a big cat.
According to molecular studies, cheetahs and jaguarundis are the closest relatives. Precise connections among cat-family lines aren’t well established, but there does appear to be a consensus that this three-cat puma lineage fits in between that of the lynxes/bobcat and the two most recent feline lineages — the leopard cat and, last but certainly not least, the domestic cat. (Barycka; Johnson et al., 2006; Kitchener et al., 2017)
Famous mountain lions:
- The Pink Panther
- The University of Vermont Catamount mascot (more information on Vermont mountain lions, now considered extinct locally, though a study by Glick indicates that New England should make a good home for the cats once again, now that they’re heading back east, thanks to changed social values and the steep slopes that preserve land there from human development)
- This photobomber, possibly:
It’s probably best all around that nobody realized that might have been a mountain lion until after it had passed through. I don’t know — the black tail tip is convincing, but its ears are bigger than a puma’s. It’s good to be on the lookout. Wildlife are often disoriented and approach people when the landscape changes, as in this landslide. I once had to fend off a waddling flock of geese who either held me responsible for the Willamette River flooding or else expected me to handle the problem.
- Scratch, alleged to be the oldest known mountain lion
- The Milton cougar: This subadult male was sighted in Wisconsin and eventually shot in the northern suburbs of Chicago in 2008
- The Champlin lion: In December 2009, this young male cat from the Black Hills, South Dakota, mountain lion population moved across the northern suburbs of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota, into Wisconsin. He eventually was spotted in upstate New York a year later and ultimately was hit by a motor vehicle and died on a Connecticut parkway in June 2011, just 70 miles from New York City!
How mountain lions hunt and eat:
These cats cover more degrees of latitude than any other felid, but they’re not always the local apex predator. Wolf packs, for example, are a problem for them, while jaguars are bigger and more powerful.
Mountain lions therefore are generalists. While many show individual tastes (including one reported to live mostly on porcupines!), deer generally are their favorite prey.
But these cats will eat anything from mice to moose. In jaguar country, they go after smaller animals like rodents, hares, pigs, raccoons, and armadillos. Further south, in higher, drier country, mountain lions have been an apex predator since prehistoric times.
Those long hind legs work in unison, enabling a speed burst that lets the cat keep up with jackrabbits and even pronghorn antelope during a short chase.
Mountain lions have a dewclaw, just like cheetahs, and can pull down large prey; they have also been observed leaping on an animal to knock it over. In some cases, the impact has broken the hapless victim’s neck.
Like all cats, mountain lions use the classic feline killing bite on small prey. It typically severs the spinal cord, causing instant death. Larger animals might require a suffocating throat bite instead.
After the kill, to avoid scavengers, a mountain lion will drag the carcass to a protected place and bury it in leaves and dirt after its first meal. The cat then remains in the area for days until it has consumed the entire body, or most of it.
During winter in the Cascades, according to Maser, a mountain lion kills a deer every 10 to 14 days on average. In warmer weather, the interval is longer because easily catchable small prey is more abundant.
How they reproduce:
Most cats lead solitary lives, but mountain lions carry it to extremes.
A 1969 study of their social behavior found that:
The animals seemed to avoid each other by mutual consent; although those whose ranges overlapped might use the same pathways, they refrained from doing so at the same time. Transients did not attempt to stay in the already occupied areas and were permitted to pass through without molestation. Clearly the system can be maintained for long periods without recourse to fighting . . .
— Ewer (in source list)
But no species can be maintained very long if its males and females don’t get together every now and then to produce kittens.
Yes, even though mountain lions are as large as a leopard, biologists call them kittens, not cubs.
According to studies of captive cats, females reach sexual maturity at around the same time as males — age 20-24 months. But they won’t breed until they have gotten some territory.
This may take awhile, as young adults must either wait for vacancies or take the leftovers when territory owners, a/k/a residents, divvy up existing ranges.
Unlike lions, these mountain cats don’t defend a territory unto death or launch a takeover. With them, it’s a much more flexible arrangement that’s affected by seasonal changes, prey numbers, hunting pressure from humans, and other factors.
Such an approach to territory does indeed reduce the likelihood of fights, as well as ensure that numbers of mountain lions will never exceed the local prey base.
However, it’s biased against the young and so is probably a major reason why subadult mountain lions are such long-distance travelers. They need to find territory somewhere in order to reproduce.
Once they’ve got it, residents scrape the ground and build little mound at strategic points in their territory, usually depositing some feces or urine at the same time to mark it.
Unlike most cats, mountain lions don’t spray urine, but they do rub against things to make another scent mark.
Estrus in a resident female lasts one to two weeks. In a stable mountain lion population, she accepts one male during this time and the pair travels together.
This species doesn’t have a breeding season but generally tends to give birth during the warmer months of whichever hemisphere, north or south, Mom is living in.
Pregnancy lasts about 90 days, and litter size typically is 3 kittens. Each newborn weighs about a pound and its eyes remain closed for 9 to 14 days after birth.
The fat content of both lion and mountain lion milk is much higher than in any other cat — no one knows why. (Ewer)
By age 2 months, a youngster weighs 8 to 10 pounds and is ready to be weaned, but it will still need Mom for many more months.
This is why adult females only breed every other year. At any given time, about three-quarters of the female mountain lions out there are supporting kittens or subadults as well as themselves. (New Mexico Department of Game and Fish)
According to Maser, subadults start covering Mom’s home range during Year Two of life. They become independent over their second winter, and by the following spring are ready to head out to look for territory of their own.
One day, Mom will lead them to a kill or to the edge of her territory and then walk away — forever.
Mountain lions are indeed loners.
Interactions with people:
There’s something elusive but fascinating about these “ghost cats.” People living in their geographic range, which covers more than 140 degrees of latitude, have given them many different names, trying to pin down this feline quality with the right word.
Legends have been a part of it, too. In southern lands some locals still believe, without basis in fact, that pumas will defend them against jaguars.
In the north it’s a mixed bag. Here, native legends portray the mountain lion either as the embodiment of evil or as a god.
Since the 1960s, there has been duality about mountain lions in US society, too. (Mattson and others)
Up until then, the cats were considered pests and there was a bounty on their pelts. This is why mountain lions have disappeared from eastern and central North America over the last 200 years.
They do prey on livestock, mainly sheep and calves, and they do sometimes attack humans as well as pets.
When public opinion turned against killing mountain lions and in favor of their conservation, lawmakers and wildlife managers opted to make mountain lions a game animal.
It sounds contradictory, but it worked. While thousands of mountain lions are harvested each year in the United States, their populations in the West are increasing. Too, as noted above, the cats appear to be expanding eastward once again.
So, how dangerous are they?
We all know that house cats are unpredictable and moody. Now imagine one the size of a person.
One that’s never been domesticated.
Yes, mountain lions are dangerous. However, they are shy and avoid us wherever possible.
The first time I saw this it scared me. After several viewings, I noticed that the cat seemed to relax after it understood that the hikers, who had been in a group and had never turned their backs on it, were now going away.
In the US, dogs kill 18 to 20 people a year and inflict suture-requiring wounds on 200,000 more, while thousands of people are bitten by rattlesnakes and 12 of them die from it. (Beier)
The recent annual average for mountain lion attacks on humans in the US and Canada is only 4 to 6. (Mattson et al.)
That’s nowhere near as high as the tens to hundreds of victims that big cats claim each year in Asia and Africa.
But when any large cat attacks, it maims and kills.
And that number is rising, as more people move into the countryside to live, work, and play.
Also, for unknown reasons mountain lions are much more likely to attack people on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
I’ll use a personal example to illustrate the question we face here in the US with mountain lions. It’s based on where I live, near Mary’s Peak, Oregon.
This is a landscape feature, not a town. It’s a forested basalt plug that rises above the Willamette Valley a little over a mile from my place. (The following two videos are from other people, though.)
Here, you can be driving along a secondary road and suddenly witness something that many people pay thousands of dollars for (and then may not see) on an African safari:
From the poster’s note on YouTube: ” . . . two brown blurs came flying out of the treeline: a deer with a cougar centimeters away from it. . . This video starts about 15-20 seconds after they tumbled to the ground . . . Took the cougar a whole 10+ minutes to kill the deer.”
But out on the Serengeti, no one in their right mind does something like this:
Who would ever want to miss a sight like this out of fear of what might happen?
My house is down there somewhere, due east, underneath the valley fog. Of note, mountain lions, like African lions, are most active at dawn and dusk. And they are triggered by human motion, like bicycling. However, I’ve not heard of an attack up there.
What is a good balance between conservation of a beautiful wild cat like the mountain lion and human safety/domestic animal protection?
Forewarned is forearmed. Talk with local wildlife experts about mountain lions and the ways you can help them as well as protect yourself before and during encounters. Here (PDF) is a set of guidelines concerning California mountain lions.
Unequivocal mountain lion fossils are only 400,000 years old.
Cheetahs, on the other hand, have the longest fossil record in the puma lineage, going back over two million years.
It’s rather odd that these two modern species, proven by molecular biology to be related, developed on different continents — the Americas (mountain lions) and Africa/Eurasia (cheetahs).
Paleontologists are hard at work, seeking fossil evidence of the connection(s).
In North America, there is Miracinonyx, a big Late-Pleistocene cat that lacked saberteeth and was built a lot like a modern cheetah. However, DNA studies reported by Barnett et al. link it more closely to the mountain lion.
Did this lineage originate in the New World? The science jury is still debating it.
A puma-like cat also haunts paleontologists who study the Old World.
Its present scientific name is Puma pardoides, though the “puma” part is not yet well established. It was about the size and shape of a modern mountain lion and ranged widely across Eurasia during the Late Pliocene and Early Pleistocene, until leopards appeared.
Apparently P. pardoides went extinct after that, but the big question is whether it was a fossil relative of the New World’s mountain lion.
If so, it must have crossed the Bering Land Bridge and entered North America during one of the ice ages.
The biggest problem facing paleontologists with both of these ancient cats is lack of fossils. More discoveries are needed to help fill in the mountain lion’s family tree.
Yes. Overall, given its wide range, Puma concolor is listed as “Least Concern,” but some local groups are in more trouble.
According to the Cat Specialist Group:
- Florida panthers are “Endangered”
- Mountain lions in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Puma are “Near Threatened”
- Mountain lions in Brazil not living in the Amazon Basin are “Vulnerable”
Data from Chile are missing, and the specialists believe that this cat is probably highly endangered in Uruguay.
Featured image: Jani Ahlvers, via BLM Nevada, CC BY 2.0.
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