Cougar guide: how to identify, diet and habitat

This stealthy felid dash goes by several names, including mountain lion, puma and cougar dash; is among the most adaptable big cats in the world – find out more about this fascinating species in our expert guide.

Collared cougar in a tree © Steve Winter/Panthera

Learn more about these powerful predators, including how to identify, the different names given to cougars and where the species is commonly found.

Where do cougars live?

The cougar (Puma concolor) 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.

Lion Sitting On Rock During Sunset

What do pumas eat?

Pumas generally feed on wild deer, as well as smaller mammals.

Portrait of a cougar/mountain lion/puma/panther in the snow
Portrait of a cougar/mountain lion/puma/panther in the snow. © Evgeny555/Getty

How long do cougars live for?

Cougars have a maximum known lifespan of 18 years.

How big is the cougar population in the States?

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.

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

A leaping cougar aka mountain lion (Puma concolor) near Moab, Utah
A leaping cougar aka mountain lion (Puma concolor) near Moab, Utah. © Sylvain Cordier/Getty

The Hollywood mountain lion

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.

Are cougars always solitary?

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.

A mountain lion (Puma concolor) on a fallen tree deep in the woods.
A mountain lion deep in the woods. © John Conrad/Getty

Do mountain lions have any predators?

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.

What other threats do cougars face?

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.

Cougar, Puma or Mountain Lion (Puma concolor), searching for prey, stalking, Utah, United States
A cougar stalking for prey in Monument Valley, Utah. © J & C Sohns/Getty

Are mountain lions, cougars and pumas all the same thing?

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.

The scientific name Puma concolor is also a little confusing as it 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.

Pumas in Torres del Paine National Park

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, where sightings have become quite reliable.


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.

Portrait of a female panther/cougar/mountain lion
Portrait of a female cougar. © Dennis Axer/Getty