Learn more about the mountain lion and its behavior.
The Encyclopedia of Animal Predators, by Janet Vorwald Dohner (Storey Publishing, 2017), details the traits and behaviors of some of more than fifty animal predators. With this information, you will be better equipped to protect your livestock, poultry, and pets from wild animals. This excerpt from chapter 4 “Cats” gives the facts on mountain lions.
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Mountain lions once roamed throughout the Western Hemisphere from the Yukon in northern Canada to the southern Andes Mountains in Chile. They were found in virtually every type of terrain, from high mountain forests to deserts to tropical wetlands. The mountain lion was present nearly everywhere in the lower 48 states.
With this widespread presence, the big cat came to have more names than any other animal on earth — including cougar, puma, catamount, mountain lion, and panther. From Mexico southward it is still called by its Spanish names leopardo and el leon; indeed, Vespucci, Columbus, and Cabeza de Vaca all mentioned the “lions” they discovered in the New World.
For some time, European fur traders believed they were seeing only female lion pelts and that the larger males were hiding somewhere deep in the forests or mountains. Later it was widely believed that mountain lions were a light-colored African or Asian leopard or panther. In the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, it was often called tyger. Catamount or cat of the mountains was used from New England down the eastern coast. Panther and painter are still used in the southeastern states, although the mountain lion is definitely not a panther. In 1774, the famed naturalist Comte de Buffon first recorded the name cougar, probably evolved from Portuguese based on native Guarani, and puma itself was not used until 1858. Biologists finally settled on the name Puma concolor, or “one color.”
Used as early as 1777, puma is a Spanish word and originated with a native Quechua word meaning “powerful.” The Cherokee klandagi meant “lord of the forest,” and the Chickasaw keoishto described the “cat of the gods.”
The “lord of the forest” reigned over the continent before the arrival of the Europeans. Many native peoples respected the big cat and viewed it as sacred, but the new colonists saw it primarily as a threat to livestock and game. Although they were familiar with wolves, mountain lions seemed exotic and dangerous. From the earliest days of settlement, local bounties were paid for killing mountain lions, and they were purposefully eradicated in many eastern states. As cattle and sheep moved onto the Great Plains, the federal government enacted predator control efforts based on hunting or trapping. Across the continent, development, habitat loss, and prey loss had a major impact on mountain lions; they need large home territories and the availability of their favored prey.
Once roaming the largest range of any land mammal in the Western Hemisphere, the mountain lion was gone from the eastern United States and Canada by the beginning of the 20th century, except for the very small population of Florida panthers. The Eastern mountain lion is officially regarded as extinct, although occasional sightings now occur in its old home grounds. Throughout the Western Hemisphere, the mountain lion now occupies about half of its former range. The species is protected in much of Central and South America.
Recent genetic research suggests the North American mountain lion is one subspecies, with five separate subspecies in South America. The cheetah, the jaguarundi, and the mountain lion are also genetically related. The mountain lion and jaguarundi may be descended from a common ancestor that first migrated into the Western Hemisphere some 8 million years ago. The modern North American subspecies itself may be descended from a small group that survived beginning about 10,000 years ago.
Today the mountain lion is reliably found in 12 western states, Alberta, and British Columbia, and its range is expanding. The population is estimated at about 30,000, although the actual numbers are in dispute. Mountain lions are hunted as game animals in some states and protected in others.
Solitary and reclusive, mountain lions are rarely observed even where their population is large, but their presence is becoming more evident in suburban and recreational areas and they remain a predator threat to livestock raisers. Humans and mountain lions are coming into increasing conflict, as development increases and subsequently fragments or isolates mountain lion territory. Lethal control has lessened in some areas, large-prey numbers have increased, and mountain lions are attempting to expand their range. Mountain lions may also become dangerously habituated to humans, necessitating their removal.
These big cats remind us of the power and beauty of nature. Balancing ecological needs and mountain lion management with human interactions, hunters, and livestock raisers will continue to be challenging.
The mountain lion has excellent vision, hearing, and smell. It does not roar like the jaguar but can scream, purr, growl, and hiss. It can climb with great agility, jump as high as 15 feet, bound or leap as far as 25 feet, and sprint up to 50 miles per hour. Although the mountain lion will cross a river, it generally avoids swimming.
Long and lean, females and males appear physically identical, making it very difficult to tell them apart. The strong legs have large paws equipped with retractable claws. The hind legs are longer than the front legs.
Males are significantly heavier than females. Adult males typically weigh 130 to 150 pounds or more, and females weigh 85 to 120 pounds. Although more uncommon, larger mountain lions have been recorded at 190 to 210 pounds. The head and body are 3 to 5 feet in length, with a long tail of 24 to 40 inches. Adult males can have an over-all length of 6 to 8 feet, including the tail. Standing 24 to 35 inches tall, mountain lions have a relatively small, rounded head with small, rounded ears.
Mountain lions are uniformly colored, either in shades of buff to tawny to red or silvery to bluish to slate gray. Different colors can occur in the same litter. An all-black color does not exist in the mountain lion population. The lips, chin, throat, and belly are lighter, with blackish tints on the muzzle, the rounded ears, and the tail tip
Mountain lions are adapted to a range of habitats in North America, including open forests, brushy or rocky areas, canyons, wooded swamps, and grassland. In any habitat, mountain lions require sufficient cover and prey, but they will cross open, flat, and exposed spaces such as agricultural fields when necessary.
The territory or home range of a male mountain lion varies from 10 to 500 square miles, averaging 50 to 150 square miles. Size is related to prey availability and terrain. The male’s territory may overlap the ranges of 2 or more females (which will be half the size of his), but not with those of other males. Female ranges may overlap one another as well, and females tend to raise their litters within the male’s territory. Territories are marked with feces and urine-soaked debris or dirt piles, 4 to 6 inches high, often left near claw-marked trees.
Hunting and foraging. Both males and females without kits live solitary lives. They are primarily nocturnal, although most activity is at dawn and dusk. They can be active during the day in more remote areas or where they become habituated to human presence. Hunting mountain lions may travel many miles every night. They tend to cross dirt trails and roads rather than follow them, but they will use dry washes and trails to move between areas of their range or in search of new territory. During the day, mountain lions use many different resting sites rather than an established den, often moving on every night.
Silently stalking or ambushing its prey, the big cat will leap onto the animal’s back and bite the base of its skull to break its neck. An adult makes a major kill about every 2 weeks, although scavenging birds and other predators are attracted to the kills, which may then force the cat to hunt again sooner. Mountain lions often drag the carcass to a cache site, covering it with debris. They return several times to feed and move the cache, usually at night. They often sleep near the carcass to guard it, although males may leave to patrol their territory.
Mountain lions clearly prefer deer and other large ungulates (elk, caribou, pronghorn, moose, wild sheep, and mountain goats) and can hunt animals much larger than themselves. Ungulates form from 70 to 90 percent of their diet, depending on location. Less often, mountain lions hunt smaller mammals and predators, including coyotes and bobcats. Mountain lions will also make use of the smallest mammals, birds, fish, or even insects and will also attack domestic equines, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, rabbits, or poultry. They rarely scavenge carcasses. The Florida panther often hunts feral hogs and armadillos, while western coastal mountain lions will consume sea mammals.
Breeding is possible year-round, although in colder climates mountain lion kittens are more commonly born in spring and summer. Both sexes will yowl and wail at night to attract mates, and males will warn off other males. Mountain lions are probably polygamous breeders, and the female raises the litter alone. She uses caves, ledges, or dense cover for the initial period of intense care, but then moves the kittens frequently.
Litters average 2 or 3 kittens, which are born spotted and yellow-brown. Kitten spots slowly fade but are not fully gone until about 2.5 years, when they reach maturity. The kittens will remain with their mother for up to 2 years, which spaces litters 2 or 3 years apart. Young mountain lions do not breed until they have established a home range. Females may locate near their mother, but males may travel very long distances to find a range, occasionally far outside the established mountain lion ranges. Young adult littermates may travel and hunt together.
Mountain lion life span is 8 to 13 years in the wild. On average only 1 kitten survives from a litter, falling prey to other adult mountain lions, bears, or wolves. Adult males can have aggressive conflicts with each other, and both sexes become involved in deadly disputes over prey with wolves or bears. Adults also lose their life to starvation, traffic accidents, ingestion of rodent poison, and hunting.
The Florida panther is protected as Endangered. Most western states permit mountain lion hunting but regulate it as with game animals; Texas, however, allows mountain lions to be hunted at any time. Mountain lions are protected in California and in central and eastern states, as well as in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Ontario. Depredation permits may be issued in cases of human, pet, or livestock safety.
Mountain lions are important predators of deer and other ungulates and a keystone species in the ecosystem. To a lesser extent, they also prey on livestock and pets and may attack humans. Although conservation programs have shifted the emphasis to coexistence and nonlethal control methods, sport hunting is allowed in some states, and depredation permits are issued for problem animals. While targeted depredation removes a problem animal, sport hunting can be counterproductive, especially when mature adult mountain lions are hunted as trophy animals. When a resident nonproblem adult is removed, a younger, inexperienced mountain lion moves into the area. In some cases, removal can be shown to increase predation on stock.
Excerpted from The Encyclopedia of Animal Predators, © by Janet Vorwald Dohner, photography by © Mike Lentz, used with permission from Storey Publishing. Buy this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Encyclopedia of Animal Predators