The cougar, also known as the puma or mountain lion, is a New World mammal of the Felidae family. This large, solitary cat has a vast range, extending from Yukon in Canada to the southern Andes of South America.
There is a considerable variation in color and size of cougars across the large range of habitats. It is on average the second heaviest cat in the Americas, after the jaguar, and the fourth heaviest in the world, after the tiger, lion, and jaguar; the cougar is larger on average than the leopard, but is not typically counted among the "big cats" as it cannot roar and is classified in the Puma genus rather than Panthera.
Capable as both a stalk-and-ambush and chase predator, the cougar pursues a wide-range of prey. Its primary food is deer but it also hunts insects, mice and rabbits, domestic cats and dogs, alpaca, livestock, and also other large game such bighorn sheep and elk. In the Rocky Mountains it sometimes preys on mature cattle and horses. It is a secretive cat and usually avoids people; it has been known to attack humans, but rarely.
The cougar is a slender and agile cat. The length of adult males is often reported at around 8 ft. long nose to tail, with overall ranges between 5–9 ft. nose to tail suggested for the species in general. The higher end of this length range equals that of the jaguar, but the cougar is less muscled and powerful than its felid cousin. Males have an average weight of about 115–160 lb. In rare cases, some may reach over 260 lb. Female average weight is between 75–105 lb. Cougars are smallest close to the equator, and populations increase in size as they approach the poles.
Cougar coloring is plain but can vary greatly between individuals, and even between siblings. The coat is typically tawny, but ranges to silvery-grey or reddish, with lighter patches on the under body including the jaws, chin, and throat.
The cougar has large feet and proportionally the largest hind legs in the cat family. This physique allows for great leaping and short-sprint ability.
Cougar claws are retractable and it has four toes, with a dew claw on its front paws. The cougar is somewhat smaller in South America, than in North America. Cougar kittens have brownish-blackish spots and rings on their tails. Their life span is about a decade in the wild and 25 years or more in captivity.
Although the cougar is frequently lumped in with larger cats, the cougar is distinct in that it cannot roar, and makes vocalizations much more common to small cats.
In spite of not being closely related to the pantherine big cats, hybrids between the cougar and the leopard have been bred and are called the pumapard. Hybrids between the cougar and the ocelot have also been bred. Hybrids between the cougar and the jaguar have been reported, but none have been proven.
This successful generalist predator will eat any animal it can catch, from insects through large ungulates. Like all cats, the cougar is an obligate carnivore, feeding only on meat. The most important prey species for the cougar is deer, particularly in North America. Mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, and even the large moose are taken by the cat. A survey of North America research found 68% of prey items were ungulates, especially deer.
Though quite capable of sprinting, the cougar is typically an ambush predator. It will stalk through brush and trees, across ledges, or other covered spots, before delivering a powerful leap onto the back of prey and a suffocating neck bite. It has a flexible spine which aids its killing technique. Kills are generally estimated at around one large ungulate 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 fifteen months.
The cougar has the largest range of any wild cat. Before the modern human population explosion in the Americas, the cougar ranged across most of the Americas. Even now, it has the widest range of any New World land animal, spanning 110 degrees of latitude, from northern Yukon in Canada to the southern Andes on both the Chilean and Argentinean sides. It has also been sighted recently in northern Connecticut and other parts of New England, however, sightings are not generally regarded as reliable enough to serve as scientific evidence.
Hunted almost to extinction in the United States and eastern Canada, the cougar has made a determined comeback, with an estimated 30,000 individuals in the western United States.
In Canada, the cougar is found west of the Prairies, in Alberta, British Columbia and southern Yukon. It is also found in smaller numbers within the Canadian Shield and river valley regions of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. They are occasionally seen in the mainland of southeastern Alaska. The densest concentration of cougars in North America is found on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, while in the United States the densest concentration is in the Ventana Wilderness in the Los Padres National Forest, California.
The cougar is gradually extending its range to the east, following creeks and riverbeds, and has reached Missouri, Michigan and Kansas. In Texas, there have been Cougar sightings in 218 of the 254 Texas counties, with confirmed mortalities in 67 counties since 1983, an indication that it is expanding statewide to its historical range.
There are continuing reports of the survival of a remnant population of the eastern cougar in Maine, New Brunswick, Ontario and the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec.
In the eastern United States, rumors and myths of the cougar never died, but this cat is slowly making its way from myth to reality, especially along the Appalachian Mountains from Virginia to Georgia. In this region cougar sightings are steadily increasing, and a government bounty is offered in many places for confirmed sightings.
One very compelling piece of evidence surfaced in June 1997, when a Kentucky man hit and killed a cougar kitten with his truck. DNA analysis proved that the animal was descended in part from wild North American cougars, and it showed no evidence of having been someone's escaped pet.
The sightings are not limited to the mountains either. Locals as far east as the Coastal Plain of North Carolina have reported sightings. In 1994 Charles R. "Buster" Humphreys Jr. claimed in his book, Panthers of the Coastal Plain to have recorded over 500 sightings of cougars. Half of these were coal black panthers. This species has never been officially recorded in North Carolina.
Due to urbanization in the urban-wildland interface, cougar ranges increasingly overlap with human habitation, especially in areas with a large population of deer, its natural prey.
In these cases, the cougar may occasionally prey on livestock and on pets, such as dogs and cats. Cougar attacks on humans have increased since the late 1980s when cougar hunting was effectively banned in many states and the cougar populations began to climb dramatically. Even so, cougar attacks are still rare.
Cougar hunting is still common in the United States, and is permitted in every state from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean with the exception of California. The cougar is typically hunted with dogs that chase the animal until it climbs a tree, whereupon the hunters shoot it.
There are an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 cougars in California (circa 1990) and an estimated 4,500 to 5,000 in Colorado.
Attacks on humans are rare, but do occur, especially as humans encroach on wildlands and impact the availability of the cougar's traditional prey. There were around 100 cougar attacks on humans in the USA and Canada during the period from 1890 to January 2004, with 16 fatalities.
California, which has the highest population density of areas with a significant cougar habitat, has had 64 attacks and 16 fatalities, most of which happened in the past 10 years.
Attacks by cougars on humans and pets are associated with urban areas situated in the wildland urban intermix such as the Boulder, Colorado area, which have encouraged a traditional prey of the cougar, the mule deer, to habituate to urban areas and the presence of people and pets.
Cougars in such circumstances may come to lose their fear of both people and dogs and come to see them as prey.
As with many animals, a cougar may attack if cornered, if a fleeing human being stimulates its instinct to chase, or if a person mistakenly "plays dead." Exaggerating the threat to the animal through intense eye contact, loud but calm shouting, and any other action that makes a person appear larger and more menacing, may make the animal retreat; fighting back with sticks and rocks may also cause a cougar to disengage.
On January 8, 2004 a cougar killed and partly ate a mountain biker in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in Orange County, California; what is assumed to be the same animal attacked another mountain biker in the park the same day, but was fought off by other bikers. A young male cougar was shot nearby by rangers later in the day.
The Cougar cannot be hunted in California except under very specific circumstances. This, as well as the extermination in California of the gray wolf and brown bear, has allowed the Cougar to increase its numbers. California law requires that wild animals who have attacked a human must be killed if they can be located.