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Solitary cats, mountain lions are highly adaptable to situations and environments, and this adaptability has enabled them to survive across much of their original range in the America's, despite severe habitat loss and active threats.
While their longitudinal range has remained, their latitudinal range has shrunk by more than half. Mountain lions used to be found throughout the United States, but due to bounty hunts in the early 1900's and threats such as persecution, trophy hunting, poaching, retaliation in response to livestock depredation, kitten orphaning, poisoning and habitat loss and fragmentation, mountain lions are now only found in 15 western states, and the genetically isolated Florida panther remains in the East. For more information about mountain lion life history, evolution and historical range, read Cougar: The American Lion below.
SUBSPECIES AND STATUSWhen a species is as broadly distributed as the cougar, regional variations in physical appearance occur. For instance, mountain lions from Alberta look somewhat different than the Florida panther, a fact that relates to the different geographic habitats in which the lion lives. (17) Wildlife taxonomists recognize these regional variations by dividing Felis concolor into some 26 subspecies or geographic races, scattered across North and South America. (18) This is similar to the different races or breeds of the domestic dog. Edward A. Goldman, coauthor of the classic, The Puma: Mysterious American Cat, explains how the subspecies of cougar are classified: The subspecies or geographic races of the puma, like those of other animals, are based on combinations of characters, including size, color, and details of cranial [skull] and dental structure(6) Twelve subspecies are recognized north of the border between the United States and Mexico. (6,7,18) (When writing the scientific name of a particular subspecies, such as the cougar found in Colorado, the subspecies name follows the genus and species. Thus, the Colorado cougar becomes Felis concolor hippolestes or F. c. hippolestes.)
The existence and status of the various subspecies of cougars in North America is the subject of heated debate among academics and wildlife professionals. The two subspecies found in eastern North America, the eastern panther (Felis concolor couguar) and the Florida panther (F. c. coryi), are classified as endangered and fully protected. (19) The Yuma puma (F. c. browni), a subspecies found along the lower Colorado River, is currently a candidate for listing as endangered. (20) While cougar populations are considered to be healthy in many parts of western North America, populations adjacent to rapidly expanding urban areas are facing critical habitat loss. In southern California for example, mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains and Santa Ana Mountains are fast losing ground to rampant residential development.
APPEARANCE AND SIZEThe cougar is plain-colored like the African lion, but is of slighter build with a head that is smaller in proportion to its body. Male pumas do not have the distinctive mane and tufted tail of their Old World cousins. (2) The absence of a mane led to an early myth about mountain lions: Early Dutch traders in New York were puzzled that the lion skins they obtained were those of females Only. They questioned Indian hunters and were assured that such animals existed, but only in the most inaccessible mountainous places, where it would be foolhardy to attempt to hunt them. (1)
Newborn mountain lions enter the world as buff brown balls of fur weighing slightly more than a pound.(1) Biologists call them kittens or cubs either is correct. Their eyes and ear canals are closed, their coats are covered with blackish brown spots, and their tails are dark-ringed.(2) This color pattern provides excellent protective camouflage.
Polygamy seems to be the rule for both male and female mountain lions. Males occupy larger home ranges than females, and a resident male with a large home range typically overlaps or encompasses the home ranges of several resident females. Nevertheless, in stable cougar populations with established home ranges, females rarely mate with more than one resident male during a breeding cycle.(9)
More mountain lions die at the hands of humans than any other known cause of death. This is as true today as it was in the past. A minimum of 65,665 cougars were shot, poisoned, trapped, and snared by bounty hunters, federal hunters, and sport hunters from 1907 to 1978 in the 12 western states, British Columbia, and Alberta.(32) This carnage seemed to peak between 1930 and 1955, with the highest numbers of pumas killed in California, British Columbia, and Arizona.(1) This sobering tally does not include the thousands of cougars slaughtered prior to the 1900s nor the untold numbers that have gone unreported since.
Collisions with motor vehicles are the primary cause of death in Florida panthers. From 1979 to 1991, almost 50 percent of documented mortality of the Florida cats was due to collisions with autos.(35) In California, 22 mountain lions fell victim to collisions between 1971 and 1976,(7) while researcher Paul Beier lost five lions he was studying to cars.(12) Three young cougars were even killed by a train, all in the same incident, in Colorado.(1)
Deaths attributable to more serious diseases appear to be uncommon. Only two cases of rabies have been documented in wild mountain lions, one in California in 1909,(42) and a more recent case in Florida.(35) Naturally occurring antibodies to feline distemper were found in 85 percent of the Florida panthers tested.(43) Another mountain lion in California was recently diagnosed with feline leukemia and was killed. California Department of Fish and Game veterinarian Thierry Work thinks the cat may have been infected by eating domestic cats. The feline leukemia virus is frequently fatal and no vaccine for wild cougars exists; this disease especially threatens small, isolated populations of cougars that front on urban areas, such as in southern Florida and southern California. Allen Anderson cautions that the widely held opinion that wild pumas are largely free of parasites and diseases may be due to the lack of specific research rather than reality.(1) Cougar diseases are just one of many aspects of the cat that need further study.
Being herbivores (plant-eaters), deer will gravitate to habitats that have adequate forage. Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), the most common species of deer in the western United States and Canada, require a mix of food types(5) and are known to eat 788 plant species.(6) In southern Utah, mule deer feed extensively on bitterbrush and Gambel oak, two plants that also provide excellent cover. Not surprisingly, areas dominated by these two plants are also frequented by mountain lions.(7)
Harley Shaw observed a similar pattern in Arizona. Forested areas such as those found on the Mogollon Rim and Kaihab Plateau have little understory cover and hold relatively, low mountain lion densities, while chaparral and pinyon-juniper vegetations, which have dense understory cover, have higher densities of mountain lions. Shaw suspects understory cover for stalking is the key to habitat suitability.(11)
Researchers Kenny Logan and Linda Sweanor prefer the terms emigrant and disperser to transient. These refer to lions that have emigrated or dispersed from their birth area but have not set up a home range. This dispersal out of a previously occupied area is called emigration, while movement into a new area is called immigration.(1) Emigrants become immigrants when they enter a new population.(17) (While it is good science for researchers to refine their techniques and terms, the lack of consistency also makes it difficult for scientists to compare information. It also frustrates writers attempting to explain mountain lions.)
COUGARS ON THE MOVEThere is nothing more distinctive about cats than the way they move, and mountain lions are no different. The big cats are the epitome of graceful, lithe motion. Stealthy shadows that do not move so much as flow across the landscape.
PREDATORY BEHAVIORCougars are ambush predators. (44) Like most cats, with the notable exception of the cheetah, they attempt to catch their prey unaware, rather than chase it down. Unlike a bear, which kills its prey through brute force, the cougar is the epitome of speed and precision. The cat is silent on approach, quick on the attack, and efficient in making the kill. (15, 38) Few people have ever seen a mountain lion make a kill in the wild and a great deal of myth surrounds how it is done. (38) Stories of cougars killing 800-pound steers and scaling 10-foot fences with the unfortunate bovine still clutched in its jaws originated in frontier imaginations rather than any documented incident. Paul Leyhausen has done extensive research on predatory behavior in domestic and wild cats, including pumas. (13) It is now believed that prey-capture