A Class on Cougars
Cougars, pumas, mountain lions, panthers…whatever you choose to call them, they command respect. Scientifically classified as Puma concolor, there are six subspecies based upon their habitat and range including Puma concolor cougar, or North American cougar. Ranging in length from 34 – 61 inches (860 -1540 mm) and weighing in between 63 – 264 pounds (29 to 120 kg), cougars are the largest of the “small” cats. While they are sometimes called panthers, they are not members of the genus, Panthera, like the African lion. They are actually classified in the genus using a more familiar name, Puma. The difference between the two lies in the formation of their larynx or voice box. Cats in the genus Panthera have a larynx that is formed in away that allows them to shake the world with a mighty roar. While they may not sound quite as fierce, those animals in genus Puma can do something more subtle; they can purr.
They might be small in comparison to the “big cats,” however, the range of the cougar’s habitat is the largest of any land mammal in the Western hemisphere. They exist in all three of the Americas: North, Central, and South. Most cougar populations in eastern North America were decimated by early settlers, but a small population of Florida Panthers still exist and evidence has shown that they are starting to take back some of their lost territory. Even though there are many sub-species of cougars, they are all very similar in appearance. They have a long, slim body followed by an expressive tail that can be up to one-third their total length. Their coat is short and rough. Their coloration varies tremendously – from red to the color of light desert sand. However, they all share a light-colored belly and chest, and black on the backs of their ears, the tip of their tail, and framing the muzzle in what almost looks like a long droopy mustache.
Tending to be solitary (existing alone) unless looking for a mate, they can travel quite a distance and often mark their territory to ward off competition. Since they do not have the benefit of a group of cats to find food, cougars are most active at night (nocturnal). In the dark, they can ambush large prey such as moose, elk, and deer. Some of the smaller animals in their diet include rabbits, squirrels, coyote, and even other cougars. If they catch something too big to eat, they will hide it and return to it until finished. One of the reasons cougars became unpopular with humans was their tendency to feed on farm animals such as cattle, sheep, and hogs.
Currently, cougars are listed world-wide as a “species of least concern” by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) but are protected in many of their home countries. Several sub-species are listed as either “threatened” or “vulnerable” and, in the United States, the Florida Panther is classified as “endangered” with an estimated population of less than 70. As cougars tend to travel great distances to find food and mates, habitat loss is the biggest factor in their current status. With the addition of more highways through their territories, they are finding is harder and harder to travel safely between areas uninhabited by humans.
Caso, A., Lopez-Gonzalez, C., Payan, E., Eizirik, E., de Oliveira, T., Leite-Pitman, R., Kelly, M., Valderrama, C. & Lucherini, M. 2008. “Puma concolor,” IUCN 2013. (Online), IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.1. August 03, 2013. <http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/18868/0>.
Shivaraju, A. 2003. “Puma concolor” (Online), Animal Diversity Web. August 01, 2013 <http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Puma_concolor/>.
If you would like to see more pictures and read more about our cougars, please see their pages.