The cougar, also commonly known as the Puma, Mountain Lion or Catamount, is a large felid of the sub-family FELINAE, native to the Americas. Its range, from the Canadian Yukon to the Andes of South America, is the greatest of any large, wild terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere. An adaptable, generalist species, the Cougar is found in most American habitats. It is the 2nd heaviest Cat in the New World, after the Jaguar.
The Cougar is more closely related to smaller felines, including the domestic cat (sub-family FELINAE), than to any sub-species of Lion (sub-family PANTERINAE). MOUNTAIN LION was a term first used in writing in 1858 from the diary of George A. Jackson of Colorado. PUMA is the preferred name in English, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. Other names include CATAMOUNT (probably a contraction from “cat of the mountain”), PANTHER, MOUNTAIN SCREAMER. It holds the Guinness Record for the animal with the highest number of names. It has over 40 names — in English alone.
Cougars are slender and agile members of the Cat Family. They are the 4th largest Cat. Males typically weigh between 53 and 100 kilograms and females typically weigh between 29 and 64 kilograms. The Cougar’s size is “smallest” close to the Equator and “larger” towards the Poles.
The head is round and the ears are erect. Its powerful forequarters, neck and jaw serve to grasp and hold large prey. It has 5 retractile claws on its forepaws and 4 on its hind-paws. The larger front feet and claws are adaptations to clutching prey. Despite its size, it is not typically classified among the BIG CATS, as IT CANNOT ROAR, lacking the specialized larynx and hyoid apparatus of PANTHERA. Compared to Big Cats, Cougars are often silent with minimal communication through vocalization outside of the mother-offspring relationship. Cougars sometimes voice low-pitched hisses, growls and purrs, as well as chirps and whistles, many of which are comparable to those of domesticate cats. They are well-known for their ‘screams’.
Cougar colouring is plain, but can vary greatly between individuals and even between siblings. The coat is typically ‘tawny’, but ranges to silver-grey or reddish, with lighter patches on the underside, including the jaws, chin and throat. Infants are “spotted” and born with “blue eyes” and “rings” on their tails, juveniles are pale and dark spots remain on their flanks.
Cougars have large paws and proportionally the largest hind legs in the Cat family. This physique allows it great leaping and short-sprint ability. The Cougar is able to leap as high as 18 feet in one bound, and as far as 40-45 feet horizontally. The Cougar’s top running speed ranges between 40-50 mph, but is best adapted for short powerful sprints rather than long chases.. It is adept at climbing, which allows it to evade canine competitors. Although it is not associated with water, IT CAN SWIM.
Like all Cats, it is an OBLIGATE CARNIVORE, meaning it needs to feed exclusively on meat to survive. Elk, followed by Mule Deer, are the Cougar’s primary targets. Though capable of sprinting, the Cougar is typically an “ambush predator”. It stalks through brush and trees, across ledges or other covered spots, before delivering a powerful leap on to the back of its prey and a suffocating neck bite. The Cougar is capable of breaking the neck of some of its smaller prey with a strong bite and momentum bearing the animal to the ground. The Cougar drags the kill to a preferred spot, covers it with brush and returns to feed over a period of days. It is generally reported that the Cougar IS NOT A SCAVENGER, and will rarely consume prey it has not killed.
Only the females are involved in ‘parenting’. The females are fiercely protective of their cubs and have been seen to successfully fight off animals as large as American Black Bears in their defence. Born blind, cubs are completely dependent on their mother at first, and begin to be weaned around three months of age. As they grow, they begin to go out on forays, with their mother, first visiting ‘kill sites’, and after 6 months beginning to hunt, small prey, on their own. When the cubs are born, they have ‘spots’, but they lose them as they grow, and by the age of two and a half years, they will completely be gone. Life expectancy, in the wild, is reported at 8-13 years. Cougars may live as long as 20 years, in captivity. Like almost all Cats, the Cougar is a ‘solitary’ animal. Only mothers and cubs live in groups, with adults meeting only to mate. It is ‘secretive’ and ‘crepuscular’, being most active around dawn and dusk.
The ‘grace’ and ‘power’ of the Cougar have been widely admired in the cultures of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The Inca city of Cusco is reported to have been designed in the shape of a Cougar and the animal also gave its name to both Inca regions and people. The Moche people represented the Cougar often in their ceramics. The Sky and Thunder God of the Incas — VIRACOCHA —– has been associated with the Cougar. To the Apache and Walapa of Arizona, the wail of the Cougar was a harbinger of death. The Algonquins and Ojibwe believe that the Cougar lived in the under-world and was wicked, whereas it was a sacred animal among the Cherokee.