It’s not your fault if you’ve mistaken a Cougar as a species different from a Mountain Lion. We have all been there, befuddled over Cougar vs. Mountain Lion and the whole shebang. Often these two nouns are used interchangeably, but they relate to the same animal.
Cougar, essentially a large cat, hails from the subfamily Felinae. We have all correctly associated a cougar with immaculate, unbeatable speed and perfect adaptability to different climatic conditions. Due to these qualities, a cougar can survive in adverse conditions with minimum rainfall and humidity.
Cougars can be found typically in South America. As a feline, it is blessed with excellent hearing, incredible sight, swift body. All these attributes make it an exemplary predator. South America has an abundance of this species. They are widespread from North through South America, covering much of the western hemisphere.
Cougar and mountain lion are the same species, same animal, but they are often interpreted as different. They both are a part of the species Puma concolor but have other subspecies. For more details on Cougar classification, check out Animal Diversity Web and the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.
A cougar has a bounty of synonyms like puma, mountain lion, panther, mountain cat, mountain screamer, painters, catamounts, and many more. Cougars hold the Guinness World Record for having the most names. Early Spanish explorers also addressed them as gato monte- cat of the mountain. Robert Busch also mentions epithets for North American cougars such as Ko-Into and Katalgar, in his book- “The Cougar Almanac: A Complete Natural History of the Mountain Lion“.
But despite having a myriad of alias names, they are all names for the same cat, relatively, the same species. Over the years, much confusion arose, particularly for cougar vs. mountain lion. Well, it’s now safe to say they are the same, aside from a few differences in body size and other characteristics.
Species: P. concolor
Mountain lions (puma concolor) are most commonly found widespread from Canada to the Southern Andes, covering a significant part from west to south America. They generally inhabit the colder mountainous regions, hence why the name. Their name is also derived from gato monte, which translates to ‘a cat of the mountain’.
Mountain lions are large cats having tawny-beige fur. They are observed to have silvery fur in the underbelly, which differs from the cougar’s tawny coat. The back of the ears, the crown of the tail, and the snout all bear black markings.
Generally, males weigh between 115 and 220 pounds, while females weigh between 64 and 141 pounds. A fully grown adult can reach up to 8 feet in length, from nose to tail. The mountain lions closer to the equator weigh more minor as compared to the ones near the poles. They can acquire a rapid speed of a maximum of 80 km/h in a sprint. A mountain lion can jump to the ground as high as a whopping 60 feet from a tree.
Mountain lion populations were once found in abundance throughout North and South America, especially in the western United States. Currently, only a few thousand mountain lions are remaining in the wild. This may be due to constant hunting, habitat destruction, and the likes. Along with that, early in the 1900s, humans ardently hunted the mountain lions because they posed a threat to the livestock. This also played a role in the constant decrease of their population. A mountain cat can survive for 8-12 years in the wild and around 20 years in captivity.
Mountain lions live in secluded areas and are pretty territorial. Males can have territories up to 100 square miles, and female territories can range from 60 square miles. Usually, they mark their territories by exuding pheromones or leaving claw markings. Since these cats can’t roar, unlike the big cats, they growl, purr, hiss much as a house cat does.
Female mountain lions have a characteristic scream which attracts the male for mating. The cubs (ranging from 1-6) are generally borne with spots that help them camouflage, and these spots disappear after a few months. By 18 months of age, they tend to leave their mother to fend for themselves.
Their diet mainly consists of rats, sheep, elk, and deer. They also prey on other animals such as bighorn sheep, rabbits, wild camelids, turkey, mules, moose. Some mountain lions can eat a whole porcupine or other quills, seemingly without harm. Like any cat in the cat family, mountain lions are nocturnal predators, strategically hunting their prey.
Mountain lions are observed to inhabit an expansive range of biodiversity. They are generally found in wetlands, forests, deserts, mountains, in dense wilderness. They are highly adaptive cats. Mountain Lions do not migrate or hibernate in winter. They simply adapt to climatic changes. One edge over some other species is that they have large paws, which helps them maintain a firm grip in the snow. This is not the case with animals such as deer, which makes them an easy target in winter/snow.
Species: P. concolor
The cougar (puma concolor, formerly known as Felis concolor) is the second-largest cat, right after jaguars. ‘Cougar’ originated from an old South American Indian word “cuguacuarana” which was shortened to cugar and then to cougar. Although they appear huge and malicious, cougars are more closely related to domestic house cats in terms of their behavior. Cougars span over a large range of regions, right from the Canadian Yukon to the Southern Andes in South America. They are the only living mammal said to be covering the most extensive coverage, i.e., the entirety of the western hemisphere.
In terms of appearance, cougars have a solid body with a tawny coat with round heads and erect ears, large paws, and hind legs. Their tail length is about 1m which is 1/3 of their total body length. They have a uniform colored coat throughout, and that’s why the species name is ‘concolor’. Their back has a slightly dark hair covering. The underside is generally whitish.
Cougars are well-built and have muscular bodies. Their hind legs are slightly longer and more robust than their forelegs. They also have a remarkably flexible spine. Their back legs are considered to be the largest amongst the whole cat family. These traits enable them to jump up to 20 feet high and fly 45 feet in a single leap, leaving no chance for prey to survive. Cougars can also run at a maximum speed of 80 km/h in a sprint, although for a short time.
Much like other members of the cat family, they have five digits in the forepaw. Their paw is endowed with sharp detrimental claws which retract while walking. These claws are capable of seizing and disabling prey of choice.
Adult males weigh about 200 pounds, while adult females weigh up to 120 pounds. An average male cougar is considered 40% heavier than a female cougar. It is tough to distinguish male cougars from females due to the similarity in their physique. Male cougars can live up to 10-12 years in the wilderness, while female cougars live longer.
Cougars cannot roar, unlike other lions and large cats, and it is one of the characteristic features which separates them from other big cats. Albeit not being able to roar, cougars can emit a human-like scream. This is why they get the name ‘mountain screamer.’
The female cougar territory ranges half that of a male one, and the male ranges may overlap the female ranges, although not leading to many conflicts. Not only that, but territories may overlap with other predators as well. If a jaguar and a cougar were to face off, the jaguar would whisk away the larger prey while the cougar is left with the smaller prey.
Cougars come into heat regularly throughout the year, but females usually only produce a litter once every 2 or 3 years. Births can occur any time of year. Most litters are born from June to September in North America. Only females are left behind to look after their cubs while the male cougars abandon their families after mating. These cubs learn the essential hunting and other life skills and are ready to leave their family as they turn 1/2-2 years of age. At two weeks of age, the cubs have beautiful blue eyes, transforming into the greenish-yellow color of an adult. The cubs are also borne with dark spots which disappear after a few months.
Cougars are predatory, much like the other cats, and they prey on various deer species such as the white-tailed deer, mule deer, and moose. They also hunt wild camelids and several small animals like raccoons. Cougars tend to drag their kill to a safer place, hiding it so that they can consume it even days later. It is scarce for them to eat prey that they didn’t kill. There might be possible conflicts when cougars encounter other predators such as bears, wolves, and jaguars. But cougars are more likely to lose this fight with other predators and end up searching for new prey. They prefer to hunt in steep areas and dense forests.
Cougars are reclusive and can be found in many varied habitats, including dense forests, dense underbrush, mountain ranges, steep canyons, lowlands, mountainous deserts, open areas with little vegetation where humans are nowhere to be found. Although they keep their distance from humans, there have been occasional cases where they may attack humans. Other reasons for attacking could be loss of territory, cornered, or someone passing by at high speeds while running/cycling. Seeing a fleeing human stimulates their innate instincts of chasing their prey. They prefer attacking unaccompanied children.
Exhibiting dominance through intense eye contact with the attacking cougar or retaliating with sticks and stones may make the animal retreat. They tend to leave behind a characteristic neck bite while attacking. Their jaw is powerful enough to grab even large prey. As with many predators, hunting cougars has become an everyday sport and hence many conservation efforts have been taken, such as the Texas Mountain Lion Conservation Project launched in 2009.
Let’s not overlook that the cougar species further developed into six subspecies (formerly believed to be 32 subspecies). These six subspecies include:
1. Argentine Cougar/Central South American Cougar
Scientific name: Puma concolor cabrerae
The Argentine Cougar is located mainly in the Western and Central areas. They are reclusive, and hence not many have been spotted.
2. Costa Rican Cougar
Scientific name: Puma concolor costaricensis
The Costa Rican Cougar has been battling habitat issues for a long time. The Costa Rican government undertakes some efforts to prevent habitat and ecosystem destruction.
3. Eastern South American Cougar
Scientific name: Puma concolor anthonyi
The Eastern South American Cougar has a low population, although their number is slowly but surely rising. They are slender and substantial in size, and they have a white gruff at the bottom of their chin that resembles a beard.
4. North American Cougar
Scientific name: Puma concolor couguar
The North American Cougar is perhaps the most popular among the subspecies, being on display in zoos worldwide. North American cougars range from Canada, right through the west, east, and central America. Some populations are believed to reside in South America too.
5. Northern South American Cougar
Scientific name: Puma concolor concolor
The Northern South American Cougar are found residing in the mountain ranges. These Cougars can get very large as long as there is enough food and no hunters around. When it comes to the survival of the fittest, these cougars are a prime example.
6. Southern South American Puma
Scientific name: Puma concolor puma
The Southern South American Puma is the last of the Cougar subspecies. They are very spread out, and in some areas, they are believed to be no longer exist. It is suspected that they have been migrating to new places. They are highly adaptive, which is one of the reasons they continue to thrive to this date.
A possible 7th subspecies is suspected to be the Florida Panther.
Endangered Cougar Species
Out of all the six subspecies, 3, in particular, are endangered subspecies of cougar. These include the Florida Panther, the Eastern Puma, and the Costa Rican Puma.
1. Florida Panther
Florida Panthers have a tan body, having a creamy white underbelly and black tips on the tail and ears. They are distinct from North American cougars concerning body weight. A Florida panther weighs much less. Florida panthers are carnivores and deadly predators, much like all cats in the cat family. They are exclusively confined to Florida and are generally found in wetlands, forests, grasslands.
The Florida Panther (Puma concolor coryi), once thriving in South America, is now nearly extinct. It is a critically endangered big cat. The Florida panther was one of the first animals listed in the endangered species act in 1973. Around 2010, their count was around 200 individuals, which is a step forward from the 1960s, wherein their population was near about 20 adults. The various conservation efforts led to the catching up of these species.
2. Eastern Cougar
The eastern cougar (puma concolor couguar), which once used to creep in Northeastern North America, has been considered an extirpated species since the 20th century. Their primary prey was considered as white-tailed deer, but these species began dwindling leading to the extinction of these eastern cougars. Not only this but their cause of extinction can also be pinpointed to human interference. A formal declaration of their extinction was done on January 22, 2018, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
3. Costa Rican Puma
Costa Rican Puma (puma concolor costaricensis) is the second-largest species of the wild cat family in Costa Rica, most likely found in Santa Rosa and Guanacaste National Parks. But these cats are severely rare due to habitat destruction and poaching. The Costa Rican government has undertaken some measures to prevent the demolishing of their habitats. This puma is a carnivore and preys on capybaras, raccoons, porcupines, opossums, hares, and small reptiles. They mostly find their habitats in temperate forests, deciduous forests, tropical forests.
Sighting of Cougar in North and South America
The best time to spot the solitary Cougars is in the winter, as they travel lower from their typical mountainous abodes. The places with a higher density of Mountain Lions in the wild are Vancouver Island, Canada, and Santa Monica Mountains near Los Angeles, California. In the U.S. they are found in plenty in states like Arizona, Colorado, California, Montana, Texas, Utah, and Washington.
In North America, they are found in national parks like Big Bend National Park (Texas), Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), North Cascades National Park (Washington), Yosemite National Park (California), Yellow Stone National Park (Wyoming, Montana and Idaho).
In South America, Puma can be found in northern and western regions from Columbia and Venezuela to Peru, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. The Patagonian region in Chile is one of the best places to view the pumas with its vast expanse of rocky and snow-capped mountains in winter. In South America, due to the vast expanse and solitary nature of Puma, it is more likely that a puma will spot you than you spotting a puma! In the Peruvian Amazon, a better chance of sighting the Puma is possible in lodges deep in the jungle such as the Tambopata Research Center.
Cougar/Mountain Lion Conservation Efforts
Mountain lions play an important role as top predators in the food chain, helping to control populations of ungulates. This is quite beneficial to humans. Given its widespread distribution, it is listed as a Least Concern species on the IUCN Red List. Scientists, however, suspect that its populations are decreasing throughout, making conservation interventions necessary to keep its populations stable.
While habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, legal hunting are the common threats to the puma, the multiple names of the puma is a hurdle to the various conservation efforts undertaken. According to Dr. Mark Elbroch, the Director of the Puma Program for Panthera, the use of multiple names for a puma in different places affects effective communication between the various stakeholders associated with puma conservation.
To overcome this complication, Dr. Elbroch suggested that wildlife personnel, media reporters, conservationists, and wildlife biologists must make the extra effort to explain that the various terms refer to the same species while communicating with the public about the species.
Here is an estimated depiction of Cougar range in America:
As listed above, Cougar and Mountain Lion are the same animal. Mountain lion along with puma, panther, mountain cat, are all monikers for the Cougar.
Here are 4 of the notable differences while considering Cougar vs. Mountain Lion:
Mountain Lion: West and South America
Cougar: South America
2. Body Color
Mountain Lion: silver in the underbelly
Cougar: tawny throughout
Mountain Lion: wetlands, mountains, dense forests
Cougar: lowlands, forests, deserts
Mountain Lion: deer, mules, sheep
Cougar: mainly deer
Still confused? Check out this video to gain more clarity:
There is another misconception that a Black Panther is the same as a Cougar or a Mountain Lion. Although a cougar can be addressed as a panther, black panther is not the same species! Black Panther is an umbrella term for all big cats having black fur/coats. They are referred to as leopards or black jaguars. This black coat is a result of melanistic mutation, essentially a gene that produces a dark pigment.
A quite similar misnomer is observed for Bobcats (Lynx Rufus). When it comes to bobcats vs. mountain lions, mountain lions are much larger in size and weight. Also, their tail is much larger than that of a bobcat.
So the answer to the question Cougar vs. Mountain Lion: Is there a difference? The answer is simply NO. While there may be subtle differences as one transcends from one geographic location to another, they are essentially the same animal/same species. Bearing all this in mind, hopefully, the cloudy fog of misconception and confusion is now lifted!