Cougar or Mountain Lion

by Judy Radovsky

The cougar, Felis concolor, (also known as the mountain lion, puma, panther, and catamount) is one of the largest predators in the Northwest. They range from five to nine feet long. This includes the tail, which is generally one third or more of the lion's length. Weight can be as little as 60 pounds for some females to considerably more than 200 pounds for a very large male.

Cougars have slender bodies, long legs, and small heads with short ears. Their hind legs are longer then their front legs. The cougar's pelage is unspotted, varying from ruddy brown to gray brown to almost silver. The throat, belly, and insides of the legs are whitish, the backs of the ears and the tail tip are black, and there is a black spot at the base of the whiskers on each side of the muzzle.

Kittens have ringed tails and spotted coats for the first several months. Because of certain physical and behavioral characteristics, the cougar, despite its size, has been placed in the genus Felis with the "small cats." Felids can purr, but not roar, a characteristic dictated by the structural anatomy of the throat. Cougars also growl or hiss; mothers call their kittens with a shrill whistling sound. Like the "big" cats, however, the pupils of their eyes constrict to a circle rather than a vertical slit.

Cougars are almost unrivaled in the cat family for their agility and power in jumping. There have been leaps of 35 feet or more reported for a cougar in a bounding run. Female cougars have no fixed breeding season. They are polyestrous, being receptive to mating several times during the year, but they normally have only one litter every other year. The loudest vocalization of the cougar is heard during this time, advertising a female's readiness to mate. The sound is unnerving--it has been described as resembling a human scream of distress. Most kittens are born in the first half of the year, after a gestation period of about 3 months. Average litter size is three kittens. Mortality rate is high, often with only one kitten surviving to join the adult breeding population. Cougars live to be about 10 or 12 years of age in the wild.

The cougar's primary food animals are deer and elk. Other hoofed animals, beavers, hares, and small rodents can be part of the diet. Very young, unskilled lions and very old or injured individuals tend to be more opportunistic, eating whatever they can actually get their paws on. Cougars also frequently learn to eat porcupines, mostly managing to avoid the quills. Those quills that are swallowed begin to soften in the stomach in about an hour.

Cougars are not made for a sustained chase; they are tremendous sprinters, like cheetahs. When hunting, they carefully locate and then stalk their prey from under cover of foliage. Particularly with deer, cougars select individuals who are old, injured, or diseased. This helps to keep the deer population strong, as the healthiest animals live to reproduce. When within striking distance (30 feet or less), the lion unleashes its power in a short, bounding dash, leaping on the target and knocking it down. The force of this pounce is often enough to kill small animals. With larger prey, the cougar aims its leap to land on the animal's back. If the initial impact does not break the prey's neck, the lion will deliver a killing bite.

Cougars may drag their freshly dispatched prey more than 1000 feet from the attack site before eating their fill, and caching the carcass for future meals. A female with kittens will take the kill back to her den to share with them. The cougar can thrive in habitat as diverse as arid desert, swampy jungle, grassland, tropical forest, and montane coniferous forest. The main requirement is that there be adequate cover for stalking prey. Cougars are constantly traveling over their ranges to find game. They use rocks, trees, and thickets for shelter as needed. A female with kittens will keep a den until her kittens are old enough to be on their own.

Cougars regulate their territorial claims and individual interactions with a flexible land-tenure system. This system, based on prior rights, is also seen in other felids, such as the bobcat.

After leaving its mother, an adolescent cougar becomes a transient, wandering through the established home ranges of older lions in search of territory left vacant by the recent death or departure of the previous resident. Only when the transient cougar has been able to install itself as a resident adult on its own home range will it be able to have exclusive control over territory and food supply. Until this point, it will not enter into the reproductive phase of its life. In this way, the land-tenure system works to keep the number of breeding adults proportionate to the availability of prey.

Cougars generally have two contiguous home ranges, moving from one to the other with the seasonal migration of herds of deer and elk. Resident males do not allow their territories to overlap, but may share boundaries with or even completely encompass the ranges of resident females. Transient lions of both sexes are generally allowed to pass through unchallenged. Here the cougar's marking system--essential in allowing these solitary predators to avoid confrontation--comes into play. Scrapes and scent posts are very common. A lion will scrape dirt into a pile up to 18 inches across with its hind feet, usually marking the scrape with urine. A scent post is a scrape that has been built up with leaves or other debris, and then personalized with the cougar's urine and scat. Male cougars will use trees as scratching posts, not only leaving scent from their paw pads, but leaving visual evidence of their presence, as well.

The amount of favorable cougar habitat is shrinking rapidly. Human encroachment into cougar territory continues as the human population expands and people try to maintain low-density housing. In recent years numbers of deer and elk have been rising, and with them the cougar population has increased. Cougars have some ability to self-regulate their population. When there are too many adults for the prey base to support, cougars have smaller litters or skip a breeding cycle entirely; however, they are losing habitat at too fast a rate for this natural self-regulation to be effective. The result is an elevated number of transient cougars. These animals, having little hope of establishing a local home range, are forced into semi-rural and suburban areas leading to more frequent instances of human-cougar encounters.

Is the extensive loss of habitat creating more displaced cougars? Has protected status (with its subsequent population increase and lessened fear of humans) been responsible for the recent increase of cougar sightings? The debate rages on. One thing everyone seems to agree on is that more information is needed. Contact your forest service or state or national park staff for current information if you are concerned with the cougar situation in areas where you are planning to travel.

If you should encounter a cougar, do not run! Meet the lion's eyes. Stand tall, make yourself look bigger. Do not turn your back. If you are wearing a jacket, spread it out. Pick up children, as their small size makes them more likely to be attacked. Do not, under any circumstances, crouch or bend over. This will make you appear to the lion more like its usual four-legged prey. Shouting and throwing some object like a rock or shoe may help convince the cougar to leave.

Copyright © 1999 Chintimini Wildlife Rehabilitation Center