Latest painting of a cougar, also commonly known as the mountain lion, puma, panther, or catamount, a large felid of the subfamily Felinae native to the Americas. Its range, from the Canadian Yukon to the southern Andes of South America, is the greatest of any large wild terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere. An adaptable, generalist species, the cougar is found in most American habitat types. It is the second-heaviest cat in the New World, after the jaguar. Secretive and largely solitary by nature, the cougar is properly considered both nocturnal and crepuscular, although there are daytime sightings. The cougar is more closely related to smaller felines, including the domestic cat, than to any species of subfamily Pantherinae, of which only the jaguar is native to the Americas.
The cougar is an ambush predator and pursues a wide variety of prey. Primary food sources are ungulates, particularly deer, but also livestock. It also hunts species as small as insects and rodents. This cat prefers habitats with dense underbrush and rocky areas for stalking, but can also live in open areas. The cougar is territorial and survives at low population densities. Individual territory sizes depend on terrain, vegetation, and abundance of prey. While large, it is not always the apex predator in its range, yielding to the jaguar, gray wolf, American black bear, and grizzly bear. It is reclusive and mostly avoids people. Fatal attacks on humans are rare, but in North America have been increasing in recent years as more people enter their territories.
Prolific hunting following European colonization of the Americas and the ongoing human development of cougar habitat has caused populations to drop in most parts of its historical range. In particular, the cougar was extirpated in eastern North America in the beginning of the 20th century, except for an isolated Florida panther sub population. Breeding populations have moved east into the far western parts of the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Transient males have been verified in Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin, Iowa, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and Illinois, where a cougar was shot in the city limits of Chicago and, in at least one instance, observed as far east as coastal Connecticut. Reports of eastern cougars still surface, although it was declared extirpated in 2011.
Cougars are slender and agile members of the cat family. They are the fourth-largest cat; adults stand about 60 to 90 cm tall at the shoulders. Adult males are around 2.4 m long nose-to-tail and females average 2.05 m, with overall ranges between 1.5 to 2.75 m nose to tail suggested for the species in general. Of this length, 63 to 95 cm is comprised by the tail. Males typically weigh 53 to 100 kg, averaging 62 kg. Females typically weigh between 29 and 64 kg, averaging 42 kg. Cougar size is smallest close to the equator, and larger towards the poles. The largest recorded cougar, shot in 1901, weighed 105.2 kg; claims of 125.2 kg and 118 kg have been reported, though they were most likely exaggerated. On average, adult male cougars in British Columbia weigh 56.7 kg and adult females 45.4 kg, though several male cougars in British Columbia weighed between 86.4 and 95.5 kg.
The head of the cat is round and the ears are erect. Its powerful forequarters, neck, and jaw serve to grasp and hold large prey. It has five retractable claws on its fore paws and four on its hind paws. The larger front feet and claws are adaptations to clutching prey.
Cougars can be almost as large as jaguars, but are less muscular and not as powerfully built; where their ranges overlap, the cougar tends to be smaller on average. Besides the jaguar, the cougar is on average larger than all felids apart from lions and tigers. Despite its size, it is not typically classified among the “big cats”, as it cannot roar, lacking the specialized larynx and hyoid apparatus of Panthera. Compared to “big cats”, cougars are often silent with minimal communication through vocalizations outside of the mother-offspring relationship. Cougars sometimes voice low-pitched hisses, growls, and purrs, as well as chirps and whistles, many of which are comparable to those of domestic cats. They are well known for their screams, as referenced in some of their common names, although these screams are often misinterpreted to be the calls of other animals.
Cougar coloring is plain (hence the Latin concolor) but can vary greatly between individuals and even between siblings. The coat is typically tawny, but ranges to silvery-grey or reddish, with lighter patches on the under-body, including the jaws, chin, and throat. Infants are spotted and born with blue eyes and rings on their tails; juveniles are pale, and dark spots remain on their flanks. Despite anecdotes to the contrary, all-black coloring has never been documented in cougars. The term “black panther” is used colloquially to refer to melanistic individuals of other species, particularly jaguars and leopards.
Cougars have large paws and proportionally the largest hind legs in the cat family. This physique allows it great leaping and short-sprint ability. The cougar is able to leap as high as 5.5 m in one bound, and as far as 12 to 13.5 m horizontally. The cougar’s top running speed ranges between 64 and 80 km/h, but is best adapted for short, powerful sprints rather than long chases. It is adept at climbing, which allows it to evade canine competitors. Although it is not strongly associated with water, it can swim.