Dangerous Beasts - American Mountain Lion
Mountain Lion Ancestry
The mountain lion is believed to have arrived on the American continent (North America first) about eight million years ago. Roughly four million years ago the Panamanian land bridge formed and the cat moved into South America as well.
Though this cat was originally placed in the order Felis (Felis concolor) DNA research indicate that the cat is more closely related to the North American Cheetah (now extinct) than the modern house-cat. The actual scientific designation then is Puma concolor.
Of the four large cats it is the smallest of the four ranking behind Cheetah, Tiger, and Lion. This does not mean that it any less dangerous. In fact the American Puma can take down prey up to eight times its size and weight.
Mountain Lion Range and Habitat
This cat, also known as catamount, cougar, puma, panther, painter, or mountain lion. This odd assortment of names has a lot to do with the way people encountered them as the American content was opened up to Europeans expanding into the west.
The cat has an extended range in the Americas ranging from the Yukon in Alaska and Canada all the way down to the southern Andes mountains in South America (see map). At one time, before European colonization, the puma's range covered all of North America. Rapid expansion and development in the east drove the puma out of all but one of these areas in Southern Florida.
Though the cat can also be called a jaguar this is a misnomer. The jaguar is a South American big cat that is slightly larger than the puma.
They are carnivores and do not eat vegetation. The cats must eat meat to survive. However, within this narrow band of foodstuffs the cat will eat everything from insects to deer. The puma is a particularly important apex predator to deer including mule deer, white tailed deer, elk and even moose. Only the Florida puma is known to eat wild pig or armadillos.
Puma are taught what to hunt and eat by their mothers. The learned behavior means that puma in Yellowstone natural park preferred elk. Puma in Alberta preferred deer and the same cat in Montana prefer big horn sheep.
In South America the puma may prefer rodents including capybara, hare, and mice.
Mountain Lion Anatomy
A mountain lion can stand up to two and a half feet tall at the shoulders and be up to eight or nine feet long from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. The tail itself can be twenty-five to forty inches in length.
Adult males weigh from one hundred fifteen to two hundred twenty-five pounds; adult females from sixty-five to one hundred forty pounds. Interestingly, puma in hotter regions, such as near the equator, tend to run smaller with the largest mountain lions being found farther north.
The Puma Arsenal
Though this is the smallest of the big cats, the mountain lion is by no means any less deadly due to its size. In fact it is best known as the "silent cat" since it is not capable of producing a roar. This also means the cat is quite stealthy. In fact, until the 1970s, when radio collars came into use, it was very difficult to capture and track mountain lion and thereby learn more about their habitat, range, and habits.
The puma is equipped with large claws, five in the front and four back, These claws are retractable. The cat also sports large canines capable of piercing flesh, muscle, and bone. In fact the front feet and claws are slightly larger than the rear. These combined with the jaw pressure and large canine teeth supply the cat with the ideal means for clutching and hanging on to prey.
Bite Force and Teeth
In experiments with a bite meter an adult puma was capable of exerting six hundred eighty pounds per square inch of bite force. This means the puma can actually grasp and crush the skull of prey including human skulls.
The puma has twenty-eight teeth, four of which are canines. These are designed for grasping and holding prey. Four teeth at the back of the mouth, called carnassials, are designed for mincing up raw meat.
The mountain lion's tail, being about a third of the animal's overall length, is used primarily for balance and as a means of helping the cat make turns during a sprint or run.
This cat, as mentioned above, is not capable of a roar. It can however, hiss, growl, purr, and scream. In fact the cat's scream has sometimes been mistaken for a woman's scream or even the call or sounds of distress from another animal entirely.
Even though the cat is capable of all of these sounds it is most often silent. it is one of the stealthiest animals on the planet which makes it very hard for scientists and naturalists to track its movements.
Leaping and Running
These cats have the largest limbs, proportionally, of any of the four large cats. One cat was recorded to have a vertical leap of eighteen feet. An average horizontal leap, from a standing start, of twenty to forty feet has been observed.
The cat can run up to forty-five miles per hour, but is not likely to put on a long chase preferring a short sprint instead.
Climbing and Swimming
The cat is very good at climbing, which enables it to evade it's natural enemy the wolf, and more recently the dog. Though the cat avoids the water whenever possible it is perfectly capable of swimming.
Attack and Kill
Puma, due to the larger limbs and powerful bite, much prefer to stalk its prey, leap upon its back (often knocking it to the ground) and delivering a killing bite to the head or neck. Depending on the size of the prey, the bite might be a suffocating bite or a bite designed to break the neck of the animal brought down. As noted above the puma's bite is powerful enough to fracture a skull.
Once prey have been killed the cat will bury it under brush and return to the kill for a number of days until the carcass is consumed.
Scavenger or Not
Though mountain lion are thought to be non-scavengers an experiment in California demonstrated that the cat will indeed feast on prey that it did not kill. Still, it seems apparent that the cat prefers to do its own hunting.
Male mountain lions can have hunting ranges that extend anywhere from fifty square miles to three hundred fifty square miles. Female hunting ranges are roughly half these numbers. All of this is highly dependent on the surrounding territory. If prey animals are scarce the puma may have a large range; if abundant the cat may have a very small range.
Males do not share ranges well, but female's ranges may overlap slightly.
Female puma reach sexual maturity in one and a half to three years. Once mated the female will carry the young for approximately ninety days. Like many cats only the female is involved in the actual upbringing of the kittens once born. Litters run from one and six cubs. Females are extremely protective of the kittens and have been known to fight off animals are large a grisly bear to defend the young.
Kittens are born blind and open their eyes within a week of birth. They feed on breast milk for the first three months. After the mother weens them they will accompany her to her kill sites and later, at roughly six months of age, begin taking down smaller prey. Survival rates for kittens to adult-hood average slightly more than one kitten per litter.
Puma in the wild average eight to twelve years with females surviving slightly longer than males. One cougar, named Scratch, lived almost thirty years in captivity.
Humans Hunting Puma
Puma hunting is completely banned in California. Puma in that state can only be taken under very specific circumstances. Despite this the California Department of Fish and Game reports roughly one hundred twenty puma killed in 2010. The Yukon is the only other region in the U.S./Canada where puma hunting is banned.
Texas has no protected status for mountain lion so anyone with a hunting license can take puma any time of the year; they do not even require a kill to be recorded.. Texas law considers puma a nuisance animal.
All other states in the union allow hunting cougar by permit only.
Puma Hunting Humans
As humans invade mountain lion habitat, attacks by the big cat are on the rise.
In California a total of three attacks occurred between 1890 and 1953. That number has increased significantly. By 2004 there had been eighty-eight attacks with twenty fatalities. Most of those fatalities were children.
Attacks are most frequent in the spring and summer months when young cats begin going out on their own. This may simply be a case of the young cat learning the best prey.
Attacks are also dependent on area. California with thirty-four million people had the most recorded attacks since 1986 at dozens. New Mexico with it's much smaller population had one attack in the same time period.
Defending Against Attack
A puma is most likely to attack defending its young or if it feels threatened or cornered. An attack can also be instigated if the human attempts to run away or "play dead" during a confrontation. It is instinctual for the cat to pursue escaping prey.
Interestingly attacks have been reported curtailed if the human prey stares at the cat or shouts at the cat. A human may also employ loud talking, raising its hand (to appear taller), or throwing rocks or sticks.
There have even been cases where fighting back with bare hands was enough to cause the cat to break off an attack.
Attacks have also been correlated to prey shortage and starvation.
Cougar population is projected at fifty thousand in the United States. Oregon projects a population of three thousand and California between four and six thousand.
State figures may be overly optimistic.
However, this is a very difficult animal to spot and track so even the best population estimates may be off.
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