8 amazing cougar facts you need to know

This stealthy felid – which goes by several names, including mountain lion, puma and cougar – is among the most adaptable big cats in the world. 

Collared cougar in a tree © Steve Winter/Panthera
Collared cougar in a tree © Steve Winter/Panthera

1. The cougar has the largest range of any native land mammal in the western hemisphere. It occurs from Canada south to Patagonia, and is found in almost every type of habitat. That includes forests, high mountains, deserts – and even urban jungles.

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2. Pumas feed on wild deer and smaller mammals and have a maximum lifespan of 18 years. 

3. The cougar has clung on in the USA despite extermination attempts that eliminated it from about two-thirds of its range in the country during the 20th century, including most of the east. But in the 1970s management strategies became friendlier, and populations began to expand.

4. Optimistic estimates suggest there may now be as many as 30,000 individuals in the USA.

5. One mountain lion has recently become famous for its frequent appearances in the Hollywood Hills; a dead cat in Connecticut was the first confirmed record there since the 1880s.

6. Scientists working on Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project, which is headed by wildlife ecologist Mark Elbroch and based in Wyoming, have upended long-standing beliefs about mountain lion behaviour, discovering that they are more sociable than once thought. 

7. Elbroch and his colleagues have found that wolves pose a very real threat to mountain lions, both directly and indirectly. Wolves rarely eat kittens they kill, which suggests that they kill to eliminate competition. And though the wolves haven’t killed adult mountain lions in Elbroch’s study, they seem to chase them at every opportunity. 

8. The most significant cause of mountain lion mortality in Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project study area is hunting, accounting for nearly half of adult deaths.

DID YOU KNOW? 

The scientific name Puma concolor isn’t quite accurate. Concolor means ‘of one colour’, but that’s not strictly true: young mountain lions are spotted, and adults are a mix of shades, with the overall hue ranging from grey to rust.

Meanwhile the six (or, by some counts, seven) subspecies are known by a plethora of names throughout their range, which spans 22 countries from southern Alaska to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. ‘Puma’ is generally used to refer to Latin American cats, while ‘cougar’ is a North American term, but the distinction is unclear. So you might find yourself talking about mountain lions, cougars, pumas, Florida panthers, catamounts or even léons – but remember: they’re all the same cool cat.

Pumas and Patagonia

The pumas of Patagonia are bolder than their northern counterparts, probably because they’ve been the top predators in this South American region for some 10,000 years. They take what they want – including thousands of sheep each year. As a result hundreds or even thousands fall victim to retaliatory killings by farmers, says Panthera’s Mark Elbroch, though the exact number of deaths is unknown. Hunting pumas is illegal on the Chilean side of the Andes, but there’s still a bounty on them in Argentina.

Panthera is launching a project in the region in the hope of mitigating the conflict. One factor in the pumas’ favour is that ecotourists will pay big money to see them, especially in the area around Chile’s spectacular Torres del Paine National Park.

But though the cats can provide an extra source of revenue for local communities, this only works if both the animals and tourists stay safe. 

Find out more about how Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project is unlocking the secrets of the life of mountain lions in the August 2015 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine

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Find out more about Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project.