Fun fact: Puma concolor holds the Guiness world record for animal with the most names, with 40 in English alone.
Cougar, puma, mountain lion, whatever you call it, are all names for the large, tan cat that lives in our watershed! At anywhere from 4-9 feet long and 65-200 lbs, the mountain lion is the largest member of the cat family in North America. While they used to roam in all parts of North America, over time, habitat destruction has greatly limited their range. Mountain lions currently regularly range in the western parts of the US, Alberta, British Columbia, and parts of Florida; however there have been single sightings in Chicago, Iowa, and even as far east as Connecticut. While much more restricted than before, this cat still has the largest range of any mammal in the western hemisphere (besides humans, of course). These wild cats live in areas with dense underbrush and rocky areas, but can live in open areas as well, with ranges from 10-370 square miles. Mountain lions are solitary and territorial animals, avoiding other cats outside of breeding season. In addition to avoiding other cats, mountain lions prefer to avoid people as well! For that reason, a mountain lion sighting is a very rare event.
A mountain lion coat is usually tan, but can range from grey to brown, with a white underside. Their long tail has a noticeable black tip, and cubs may even have brown spots! Due to their elusivity, other similarly colored animals like deer, coyotes, or bobcats may be mistaken for a lion. They are most active at dawn and dusk, for hunting. A mountain lion’s diet is strictly carnivorous, including mainly deer, but also rabbit, small rodents, and coyotes. Although large and powerful, a mountain lion is not always the apex predator in its area. Due to its large range, it may be second to the jaguar, grey wolf, or species of bears. Even more surprising, the mountain lion is actually more closely related to smaller cats than its larger relatives! Puma concolor is a part of the subfamily Felinae, as opposed to the subfamily Pantherinae, which contains the african lion, tigers, and leopards.
The mystery of these animals have led us to wonder about their whereabouts and activity. There are ways to tell if there are mountains lions in your area. You can look for tracks or droppings! A mountain lion paw print looks like a large cat paw print, with no claw marks present. In a mountain lion print, you will find asymmetrical tear drop shaped toes. The paw pad will have two lobes on the leading end and three lobes on the trailing end. A mountain lions stride is about 30 inches, so the prints can be expected to be roughly 30 inches from each other. The biggest distinguishing factor from a mountain lion paw print to other animals is shear size and lack of claw marks. Besides the tracks, mountain lion droppings can be very identifying of a nearby cat. Their droppings are large, usually pungent, and may contain fur, bones, or remnants from a past meal. Mountain lions have been known to leave waste at the site of a kill.
How should you stay safe in areas where you believe mountain lions to be? Some good general tips to protect yourself include but are not limited to:
- Stay alert when visiting a natural space.
- Do not hike, bike, or jog alone.
- Avoid hiking or jogging when mountain lions are most active (dawn and dusk).
- Keep a close watch on small children and pets.
- Do not wear headphones.
Well great, what happens if you do see one though? What should you do if you encounter a mountain lion, you may ask? Well to reiterate, the chances of seeing a mountain lion are already slim, due to their solitary nature. Attacks are even more rare. Similar to Great White Sharks, you are more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a mountain lion. They do not prey on people and prefer to avoid them, however they may stand ground if defending cubs or a kill. Additionally, small pets and children may be more vulnerable. Keeping a close eye while in mountain lion country (our watershed!) is important.
Tips on what to do if a mountain lion is encountered:
- Do not approach the lion. It may feel cornered if you approach.
- Do not turn your back or run away. This might trigger an instinctual response to chase.
- Stand tall, face the animal and make noise, and try to look bigger by opening your jacket, waving your arms, or throwing things.
- Pick up small children without bending over. A human standing on 2 feet does not resemble a mountain lions natural prey.
- Back away slowly, giving the lion room to escape.
- If attacked, fight back.