Cougars are the largest member of the cat family and live only in the New World. They are slender and agile cats that range from Yukon Territory south all the way to southern Chile and Argentina. They are the second largest wild felid in the Americas, and their size appears to increase with latitude. Males being larger than females; adult males stand about 56 to 79 cm (1.8 to 2.6 ft) tall at the shoulders and females 53 to 76 cm (1.7 to 2.5 ft). Total length from nose to tail is between 2 to 2.4 m (6.6 to 7.9 ft) for adult males and from 1.8 to 2 m (6 to 6.6 ft) in adult females. Males range in weight from around 53 to 72 kg (117 to 159 pounds), with the largest recorded weighing over 125 kg (276 lb). Female weight ranges between 34 and 48 kg (75 and 106 lb). The average weight of 13 adult male cougar from 2 study areas on Vancouver Island, was 55.5 kg and for 26 adult females it was 39.5 kg (Logan and Sweanor 2000).
Cougar are generally plain colored which is reflected in the Latin concolor. However, coat colour does vary among individuals even within littermates. Most animals, however are tawny coloured, but some are silvery-grey or reddish brown. All adult individuals have lighter patches on the under side of body including under the the jaws, chin, and throat (Wikipedia 2009). The tip of the tail is black and there are black patches on the back of the ears, and on the sides of the muzzle leading down from the nose. Infants have a reddish- or greyish-brown coat with black spots over the body and black rings on the tail. The spots and tail rings gradually fade as the young grow older and have disappeared usually by about 2 years old. The blue eyes of young when they are born eventually turn to the same amber or brown of adult eyes at around 5 months of age. However, the eyes are closed until about 2 weeks of age. Average birth weight is around 0.5 kg (1 lb) (Logan and Sweanor 2000).
There are no documented occurrences of all-black (melanism) cougar despite some reports. Large black cats, often called "black panthers" is a term used to describe relatively rare melanistic individuals observed in other large cat species, such as jaguars and leopards (Wikipedia 2009). Other common names for cougar include “puma”, “mountain lion”, and “panther”.
The dental formula (for one side of upper and lower jaws each) is incisors 3/3; canines 1/1; premolars 3/2; molars 1/1 - for a total of 30 teeth. The shape of these teeth reflect the cougar’s carnivorous diet. The large sharply pointed canines are used to grip and suffocate their prey, while the upper and lower large flattened premolars (carnassials) work together acting like shears to shear meat and break bones (Logan and Sweanor 2000).
Cougars have large paws with 5 toes on the forefeet and 4 on the smaller hind feet, both with retractile claws. These are used for catching prey for defense or attack, and for climbing trees. Their hind legs are proportionally the largest in the cat family. These morphological characteristics help the cougar run fast and considerable jumps to catch their prey. Cougar can run as fast as 55-72 km/h (35-45 mph), but are adapted primarily for fast sprints of short duration not for endurance (Wikipedia 2009). They are well able to climb trees and often do this to avoid larger carnivores, or when chased by hunters with dogs. They are also known to swim, and in BC are known to swim between islands along the coast.
The Cougar is one of three species of wild cats in British Columbia.
Cougars generally begin breeding by their second summer, though females may start as early as 18 months of age. They are polygamous and promiscuous. There is no clear seasonality to their reproductive cycle. Males usually hold large territories that encompass the home ranges of several females. They wander through their territory seeking females in oestrus, although females are also known to seek out males when in heat. In captivity, oestrus (heat) lasts on average 6.5 to 8.1 days with an average cycle of 37.6 days; these times may be shorter in the wild. Like other felids which are all probably induced ovulators, cougars are vociferous during actual mating and the cries can be quite unnerving when heard at night in the wilderness (Logan and Sweanor 2000).
Gestation lasts from 82 to 103 days with a mean of 91.3 (similar in wild and captive conditions). Litter size can vary between 1 and 6 kittens, but typically is 3. Young are born blind and remain in a birth or other site for 2 month when they are usually weaned and are able to accompany their mothers. The female stays with them during the early days and leaves them to forage on her own. Even when the young are well capable of following her she usually leaves them to hunt, returning later to bring them to the kill site. They become independent anywhere from 9 to 21 months of age, and there is some evidence that rather than wandering away, the mother simply abandons them (Logan and Sweanor 2000; Hahn 2001).
Cougars are obligate carnivores known to catch and kill a wide variety of prey types, but throughout their range they tend to specialise on medium-sized deer, particularly Odocoilid deer such as mule deer, white-tailed deer, and similar representatives in South America. They are also known to prey on other large mammals such as elk, caribou, moose, bighorn sheep, wild and domestic horses, and domestic livestock such as cattle and sheep. Around human habitation they will also kill dogs and even domestic poultry. A survey of North America research found 68% of prey items were ungulates, primarily deer, but they are known to take smaller mammals such as rabbits, hares, porcupines and even mice. Their use of non-deer species seems to depend on local availability and relative abundance of prey species (Logan and Sweanor 2000; Wikipedia 2009).
Though they will chase prey, cougar usually ambush their prey. They will use cover provided by shrubs, tall grass and trees to get close to their prey before leaping onto it and killing it with a neck bite.
Cougar are secretive and crepuscular, being most active around dawn and dusk, probably in response to their prey’s activity patterns. Like almost all cats, the cougar is a solitary species. Only mothers and kittens live in social units, with adults meeting briefly to mate for between 1 to 6 days. Territories are held and defended only adult males, whereas females live on essentially undefended home ranges. Estimates of annual territory and home range sizes vary greatly, probably reflecting prey availability and density, as well as how the ranges were measured by researchers. Male territories appear to be from 1.5 to 5 times larger than female ranges in the same study areas. In North America, reported sizes run from 151-792 km2 for male annual territories, and 55 to 309 km2 for annual female home ranges (Logan and Sweanor 2000). Some of the smallest female home ranges and highest densities recorded in North America, have been from one study area on Vancouver Island, although females in another area on this island in the same study had larger ranges; differences in prey density between the 2 areas were suspected Goh 2000; Hahn 2001; Gladders 2003; Wilson et al. 2004). Elsewhere, a female adjacent to the San Andres Mountains, for instance, was found with a large range of 215 km2 (83 sq mi), necessitated by poor prey abundance. Research has shown cougar densities range from 0.5 animals to as much as 7 (in one study in South America) per 100 km2 (38 sq mi) (Logan and Sweanor 2000).
Male territories include or overlap with home ranges of several females but rarely if ever with territories of other males. In contrast, home ranges of females often overlap considerably with each other, although the core areas within these ranges that they use the most often show less overlap with neighbours. Female ranges also tend to be smaller when they are rearing young. Scrape marks, urine, and faeces are used by males to mark territory and attract mates. Males scrape together a small pile of leaves and grasses with their hind feet, and then urinate on it to mark territory and to indicate their presence to females. Males will also scratch large trees and also rub their face on trees or rocks leaving scent from their facial glands (Logan and Sweanor 2000).
Females frequently establish their own home range very near to their mother’s range (philopatry), whereas young males move away to try and establish their own territories. Because males disperse further than females and eventually compete more directly for mates and defend their territories, they are most likely to be involved in conflict. Hunting or relocation of the cougar may increase aggressive encounters by disrupting territories and bringing young, transient animals into conflict with established individuals (Logan and Sweanor 2000).
The extensive distribution of the cougar is primarily the result of its adaptability to most habitat types. Cougar inhabit most types of forest as well as in lowland grasslands and mountainous deserts. Studies show that the cougar prefers regions with dense underbrush, but they can live with little vegetation in open areas. Its preferred habitats include precipitous canyons, escarpments, rim rocks, and dense brush (Wikipedia 2009). These observations apply equally to cougar living in British Columbia.
Cougar are found from northern Yukon in Canada to the southern Andes. This span of 110 degrees of latitude is the largest distribution range of any wild land mammal in the New World. It is one of only three cat species, along with the bobcat and Canadian lynx, native to Canada. Following European colonization, the cougar was eradicated from most of eastern North American range, except for Florida. Today in North America , it is found throughout most of the western states in America, and in Alberta, British Columbia and Yukon Territory in Canada. There are some reports that cougar are re-appearing in eastern North America and DNA evidence has supported this, as do sightings in the mid-west through to Eastern Canada. The only known eastern population is the Florida panther, which is critically endangered (Wikipedia 2009). Populations south of the Rio Grande, are found in every Central and South American country except Costa Rica and Panama (Caso et al. 2009).
Distribution in British Columbia
The Cougar is found throughout most of British Columbia, excluding the northwestern and extreme northern portions of the Province, and the Queen Charlotte Islands. Cougar are known to swim between the Gulf Islands on occasion, and they are probably resident on some of the larger ones. They have also been reported to venture into towns and cities including Victoria and Vancouver on rare occasions.
Cougar was originally placed in the genus Puma by Linnaeus and later into the genus Fels, but most recently it has been placed back into the Puma genus. The name “puma” was apparently the name used by Incas in South America for this wild cat. It is thought to have evolved about 2 to 7 million years ago, but whether in North or South America is unknown. Although some recognised as many as 29 subspecies, recent genetic work on cougars found no evidence to support the presence of subspecies in North America, including in BC. For further information, see Hatler et al. 2008.
Where hunting and/or animal control is permitted, humans are responsible for most cougar deaths, including in parts of British Columbia (Hahn 2001). However, besides old age and starvation (in both aged animals and inexperienced juveniles), cougars will kill each other. Throughout their range, infanticide has been documented as well killing of older animals. In New Mexico, infanticide has been reported as high as 44% of all kittens, and 100% of juvenile deaths and 52% of adult deaths were caused by other cougars. It appears that adult males are most probably carrying out most of these intraspecific killings (Logan and Sweanor 2000). Similar findings of intraspecific killing were reported in a study of a density cougar population on Vancouver Island (Hahn 2001).
Other causes of mortality include highway collisions, as well as deaths from injuries sustained while hunting large ungulate prey. Little is know about the extent of deaths caused by diseased or parasites, although cougars are known to suffer a variety of these (Logan and Sweanor 2000).
Interactions with Humans:
Under some circumstances cougar will hunt and kill humans. Such interactions are exceedingly rare, and appear to involve young inexperienced cougars (especially young males) and animals in poor condition. The total recorded cases of attacks by cougar on humans between 1890 and 2004 totalled 108 with 20 of these being fatal (Arizona Game & Fish Dept. in Wikipedia 2009). There is misinformation about cougar attacks on humans and what can be done in the event of one (Deurbrouck and Miller 2001).
Arizona Fish and Game Department. Confirmed mountain lion attacks in the United States and Canada 1890 – Present.
Caso, A., Lopez-Gonzalez, C., Payan, E., Eizirik, E., de Oliveira, T., Leite-Pitman, R., Kelly, M., Valderrama, C. & Lucherini, M. (2008). Puma concolor. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Currier, M.J.P 1983. Felis concolor. Mammalian Species 200::1-7.
Deurbrouck, J. and D. Miller. 2001. Cata Attacks: true stories and hard lessons from cougar country. Sasquatch Books, Seattle.
Gladders, A.D. 2003. Predation behaviour of Vancouver Island cougar (Puma concolor vancouverensis) and its relation to micro- and macroscale habitat. Unpubl. M.Sc. Thesis, University of British Columbia.
Goh, K.M.L 200. Macrohabitat selection by Vancouver Island cougar (Puma concolor vancouverensis). Unpubl. M.Sc. Thesis, University of British Columbia.
Hahn, A.M. 2001. Social and spatial organization of Vancouver Island cougar (Puma concolor vancouverensis, Nelson and Goldman, 1943). Unpubl. M.Sc. Thesis, University of British Columbia.
Hatler, D.F., Nagorsen, D.W. and A.M. Beal. 2008. Carnivores of British Columbia. University of British Columbia Press. Vancouver, BC, Canada. 416 pp.
Logan, K.A. and L.L. Sweanor. 2000. Puma. Chapter 17, pp. 347-388, in: S. Demarais and P.R. Krausman (eds.) Ecology and management of large mammals in North America. Prentice Hall, N.J.
Wilson, S.F., Hahn, A., Gladders, A., Goh, K.M.L. and D.M. Shackleton. 2004. Morphology and population characteristics of cougars on Vancouver Island, Canada. Canadian Field Naturalist 118:159-163.
Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC:
Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab
for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British
Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed:
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