Part of the family Felidae, genus Puma contains the cougar and the jaguarundi, and may also include several poorly known Old World fossil representatives, like “Owen’s panther,” (Puma pardoides,) a large cougar-like cat of Eurasia’s Pliocene. Cougar (Puma concolor) is believed to have originated in Asia about 11 million (1.10 crore) years ago. It is native to the Americas. Also known as puma, mountain lion, panther, catamount or mountain cat, depending on the region, it is a large, solitary cat and has the greatest range of any large wild terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere. It is found in every major American habitat type, from Yukon in Canada to southern Andes of South America. After jaguar it is the second heaviest cat in the Western Hemisphere, but still it is not directly related to true lions. Despite its larger size it does not qualify to become member of the ‘Big Cat’ club because it cannot roar like tiger, lion, leopard and jaguar—the only four big cats. Its close relations are smaller felines and domestic cat is more closely related genetically. Like many cats cougar is also nocturnal.
Evolution and Taxonomy
Placed in the subfamily Felinae, cougar is the largest of the small cats, although its bulk characteristics are similar to those of the big cats. Taxonomic research done on felids is not very exhaustive and much of what is known about their evolutionary history is based on mitochondrial DNA analysis, as these animals are poorly represented in fossil record, and there are significant confidence intervals with suggested dates. The latest genomic study of Felidae indicates that the common ancestors of modern Leopardus, Lynx, Puma, Prionailurus, and Felis lineages crossed over to Americas through the Bering land bridge around 8 to 8.5 million years ago (Mya). Later the lineages diverged in that order. Felids living in North America then invaded South America about 3 Ma ago as part of the Great American Interchange, following formation of the Isthmus of Panama. This cat was originally thought to belong to Felis (Felis concolor), the genus which includes domestic cat. As of 1993, it is now placed in Puma along with the jaguarundi, a cat just a little more than a tenth its weight.
Recent studies have shown that the jaguarondi and cougar are most closely related to modern cheetah of Africa and western Asia, but the relationship is unresolved. Experts are of the opinion that the cheetah lineage moved away from the Puma lineage in the Americas and migrated back to Asia and Africa, while other research suggests the cheetah diverged in the Old World itself. The outline of small feline migration to the Americas is thus unclear.
Research conducted in recent years has demonstrated a great amount of genetic similarity among the North American cougar populations. This suggests they are all fairly recent descendants of a small ancestral group. Culver et al. is of the opinion that the original North American population of Puma concolor extirpated some 10,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene extinctions, when other large mammals such as Smilodon also disappeared. North America was then repopulated by a group of South American cougars.
Guinness record for its names
Found on the vast area, cougar has numerous names and references in the mythology of the indigenous Americans and also in contemporary culture. It holds the Guinness record for the animal with the highest number of names. It has over 40 names in English alone. Out of all the names in English puma and mountain lion are the most popular ones. Others include panther, painter, catamount and mountain screamer. It is believed that painter is a primarily upper-Southern U.S. regional variant of “panther”, but a folk etymology, fancying a similarity between the typically dark tip of its tail and a paintbrush dipped in dark paint, has some currency.
The name “cougar” may have come from the archaic Portuguese çuçuarana, via French; the term was initially derived from the Tupi language. A current form in Brazil is suçuarana. It may also be borrowed from the Guaraní language term guaçu ara or guazu ara. “Puma” has come, via Spanish, from the Quechua language.
Slender and agile
They are not only slender and agile, but also the fourth largest cat. Adults are about 60 to 90 cm (24 to 35 in) tall at shoulders. Adult males weigh 53 to 100 kilograms (115 to 220 pounds), averaging 62 kg (137 lb), whereas females weigh between 29 and 64 kg (64 and 141 lb) averaging 42 kg (93 lb). Adult males are around 2.4 m (7.9 ft) long (nose to tail) and average female length is 2.05 m (6.7 ft), with overall ranges between 1.5 to 2.75 m (4.9 to 9.0 ft) (nose to tail) suggested for the species in general. Of this length about 63 to 95 cm (25 to 37 in) is comprised of tail. Animals living closer to the equator are smaller in size, but those found nearer the poles are the largest. The largest recorded cougar was shot in Arizona and weighed 125.5 kilograms (276 pounds) after its intestines were removed, indicating that in life it could have weighed nearly 136.2 kilograms (300 pounds).
Cougars have large paws and proportionally the largest hind legs in the cat family. This allows it great leaping and short-sprint ability. An exceptional vertical leap of 5.4 m (18 ft) is reported for the cougar. Horizontal jumping capability from standing position is suggested anywhere from 6 to 12 m (20 to 40 ft). These cats can run as fast as 55 to 72 km/h (35 to 45 mi/h), but is best adapted for short, powerful sprints rather than long chases. Cougars can climb trees, which allow them to evade canine competitors. Although the animal is not strongly associated with water, it can swim.
Cougar’s head is round having erect ears. Its powerful forequarters, neck, and jaw serve to grasp and hold large prey. It has four retractable claws and one dewclaw on each forepaw plus four claws on hind paws. The larger front feet and claws are adaptations to clutching prey.
These animals can be almost as large as jaguars, but they are less muscular and not as powerfully built. They are normally larger than all felids except lions and tigers. Despite being larger in size they are not typically classified as the “big cats”, as they cannot roar, lacking the specialized larynx and hyoid apparatus of Panthera. If we compare cougars to “big cats”, they are often silent with minimal communication through vocalizations outside 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.
Cougars have plain color (hence the Latin name concolor) which can vary to a great extent 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. Infant cubs are spotted and are born with blue eyes and rings on their tails; juveniles are pale, and dark spots remain on their flanks.
All-black coloring (melanism) 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.
Hunting and diet
Cougars, an obligate carnivore (meaning it feeds exclusively on meat), can eat any animal they can catch, from insects to large ungulates (over 500 kg). A study on winter kills (from November to April) in Alberta showed that ungulates accounted for greater than 99 per cent of cougar’s diet. Another study revealed that elks are cougar’s most favorite food and the mule deer comes next. This study was conducted in Yellowstone National Park, which further shows that the prey base is normally shared with the gray wolves, with which the cat competes for resources.
Besides elks and mule deer cougar’s menu also include various species of deer, particularly in North America; white-tailed deer and even large moose are taken. Other animals, which are also on the cat’s list, are Bighorn Sheep, domestic horses, wild horses of Arizona and domestic livestock such as cattle and sheep. A survey of North America research found 68 per cent of prey species were ungulates, especially deer. It has also been observed that some cougars rarely kill bighorn sheep, while others rely heavily on it.
Cougars found in Central and South America rely less on deer for food. Here small to mid-size mammals make up much of the diet. They also include large rodents such as capybaras. Percentage of ungulates is just about 35 of total prey species. Decline in larger prey is perhaps due to the competition with jaguars, which are larger in size. In this part of the range other prey species include mice, hares and porcupines. Small reptiles and birds are also sometimes taken, but this is rarely recorded in North America.
This felid prefers habitat with dense underbrush and rocky areas for stalking, but can also live in open areas. It is territorial and persists at low population densities. For them territory size depends on terrain, vegetation and availability of food. Though it is a large predator, but is not always the dominant species in its range. The competitors it faces are jaguars, American Black Bear, grey wolf and the grizzly bear. Cougars are solitary cats and usually avoid people. Attacks on humans remain fairly rare, despite a recent increase in frequency.
Though capable of sprinting, cougars are typical ambush predators. They stalk through brush and trees, across ledges, or other covered spots, before pouncing onto the back of the victim and inflicting a suffocating neck bite. They break the neck of some of the smaller prey with a strong bite and momentum bearing the animal to the ground.
Usually they kill around one large ungulate every two week, but the time gap shortens in the case of females who are raising young, and may be as short as one kill every three days when cubs are nearly mature at around 15 months. After the kill is made cat usually drags it to a preferred spot, covers it with brush, and returns to feed over a period of days. It has been observed that cougars are non-scavenging cats and will rarely consume prey, which they have not killed.
Due to excessive hunting following the colonization of America by Europeans and the continuing development by humans in cougar habitat, populations have dropped in most parts of the animal’s range. In particular, it was extirpated in eastern North America in the beginning of the 20th century, except for an isolated sub-population in Florida. However, in recent decades, breeding populations have moved east into the far western parts of the Nebraska, Dakota and Oklahoma. Transient males have been confirmed in Minnesota (one was shot and killed here), Iowa, Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Illinois, where one was shot in the city limits of Chicago. In at least one instance it was observed as far east as Connecticut.
Following the various researches, the canonical Mammal Species of the World (3rd edition) has recognized six subspecies of cougar, five of which are found solely in Latin America. Till late 1980s, biologists used to claim as many as 32 subspecies; however, a recent genetic study of mitochondrial DNA found that many of the so called species are too similar to be recognized as distinct at a molecular level.
- Argentine puma (Puma concolor cabrerae) – It includes the previous subspecies and synonyms hudsonii and puma (Marcelli, 1922);
- Costa Rican cougar (Puma concolor costaricensis)
- Eastern South American cougar (Puma concolor capricornensis) – It includes the previous subspecies and synonyms acrocodia, borbensis, capricornensis, concolor (Pelzeln, 1883), greeni and nigra;
- North American Cougar (Puma concolor couguar) – It includes the previous subspecies and synonyms arundivaga, aztecus, browni, californica, coryi, floridana, hippolestes, improcera, kaibabensis, mayensis, missoulensis, olympus, oregonensis, schorgeri, stanleyana, vancouverensis and youngi.
- Northern South American cougar (Puma concolor concolor) – It includes the previous subspecies and synonyms bangsi, incarum, osgoodi, soasoaranna, sussuarana, soderstromii, suçuaçuara and wavula.
- Southern South American puma (Puma concolor puma) – It includes the previous subspecies and synonyms araucanus, concolor (Gay, 1847), patagonica, pearsoni and puma (Trouessart, 1904)
Life cycle and Reproduction
Cougar females attain sexual maturity between one-and-a-half to three years of age and average a litter every two to three years throughout their reproductive life, though the period can be as short as one year. They are sometimes reported as monogamous, but this is not clear and polygyny is believed to be more common. Females remain in estrus for about 8 days of a 23-day cycle and gestation period normally lasts 91 days. Copulation in these cats is brief but frequent.
Once the mating is over both sexes go on their separate ways and female starts searching for caves and other alcoves that may be used as litter dens. Litter size can be between one and six cubs; usually it is two or three and the survival rate is just over one per litter. It is only the female that is involved in parenting and while doing so it is fiercely protective of her cubs. It has been observed successfully fighting off animals as large as grizzly bears. Like most cats cougar cubs are also blind at birth and are completely dependent on their mother. They begin to be weaned at around three months of age. As they grow, they start going out on forays with their mother, first visiting kill sites. After six months they start hunting small prey on their own. At birth cubs have spots, which vanish as they grow old, and by the age of two-and-a-half years, they are completely gone.
Cubs leave their mother to establish their own territory at around two years of age, but sometimes it happens earlier also; usually males leave sooner. One study has revealed high mortality amongst those cougars that travel farthest from the maternal range, often due to conflicts with other conspecifics (intraspecific competition). Research conducted in New Mexico has found that “males dispersed significantly farther than females, were more likely to traverse large expanses of non-cougar habitat, and were probably most responsible for nuclear gene flow between habitat patches.”
Cougars can live between 8 to 13 years in the wild; exceptions of 20 years are also there, but the average life expectancy is believed to be 8 to 10 years; a female of about 18 years was reported killed by hunters on Vancouver Island. In captivity they may live as long as 20 years. One male from North America, named Scratch, was two months short of his 30th birthday when he died in 2007. Reason why animals die early in the wild include disease and disability, competition among the members of the same species, starvation, accidents and where allowed, hunting by humans. Feline immunodeficiency virus, an endemic HIV- like virus in cats, is well-adapted to the cougar.
Social life of Cougar
Cougars are solitary, secretive and crepuscular (being most active around dawn and dusk) creatures. It is only mothers and their cubs live in groups, with adults meeting only to mate.
In these animals estimates of territory sizes vary greatly. According to Canadian Geographic report male territories can vary from 150 to 1000 square kilometers (58 to 386 sq mi) with female ranges half the size. There are other researches also that suggests a much smaller lower limit of 25 km2 (10 sq mi) but an even greater upper limit of 1300 km2 (500 sq mi) for males. In the United States of America, very large ranges have been reported in Texas and the Black Hills of the northern Great Plains, in excess of 775 km2 (300 sq mi). Ranges occupied by males may include or overlap with those of females but, at least where studied, not with those of other males. This serves to reduce conflict between cougar males. In contrast to males ranges of females may overlap slightly with each other. Urine, feces and scrape marks are used to mark territory and attract mates.
Size of home range and the overall abundance of the animal depend on prey availability, terrain and vegetation. Since males disperse farther than females and compete more directly for territory and mates, they are most likely to be involved in fight. When a sub-adult male fails to leave his maternal range, there is likelihood that he may be killed by his father. When males come face-to-face with each other, they hiss, spit, and may engage in violent conflict if neither backs down. It has been observed that relocation or hunting of cougars may increase aggressive encounters by disrupting territories and bringing young, transient animals into conflict with established individuals.
IUCN has estimated cougar’s total breeding population at less than 50,000, with a declining trend. State-level statistics in US are often more optimistic, suggesting populations have rebounded. In Oregon, a healthy population of 5,000 was reported in 2006, which exceeded a target of 3,000. California has actively sought to protect the cat and a similar number of cougars have been suggested, between 4,000 and 6,000.
Cougar is one of only three cat species that are native to Canada. Other two are the bobcat and the Canadian lynx. Cougars have the largest range of any wild land animal in the Americas. It spans 110 degrees of latitude, from northern Yukon in Canada to the southern Andes. Animal’s wide distribution stems from its adaptability to virtually every habitat type—all forest types as well as the lowland and mountainous deserts. Studies indicate cougars prefer regions with dense underbrush, but are equally comfortable in the areas with little vegetation in open areas. Its preferred habitats include dense brush, precipitous canyons, rim rocks and escarpments.
The cat was extirpated (locally extinct) across much of its eastern North American range (barring Florida) in the two centuries after Europeans colonized the region, and faced grave threats in the remaining territory. Today the animal is found across most of the western American states, the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Alberta and the Canadian Yukon Territory.
There are reports, supported by DNA evidence, of possible recolonization by the animal of eastern North America. A consolidated map of cougar sightings indicates the presence of animal from the mid-western Great Plains through to eastern Canada. The Quebec wildlife service is also positive about its presence in the province as a threatened species after multiple DNA tests confirmed cougar hair in lynx mating sites. The only indisputably known eastern population is the Florida panther, which is critically endangered. There are reports of unconfirmed sightings in Elliotsville Plantation, Maine (north of Monson); and in New Hampshire, there have been unsubstantiated sightings as early as 1997. In 2009, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources confirmed a cougar sighting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Typically, extreme-range sightings involve young males, who can travel great distances to establish ranges away from established males; all four confirmed cougar kills in Iowa since 2000 involved males.
Police shot dead a cougar on April 14, 2008 on the north side of Chicago, Illinois. DNA tests were consistent with cougars from the Black Hills of South Dakota. Less than a year later a cougar was photographed and unsuccessfully tranquilized on March 5, 2009 by state wildlife biologists in a tree near Spooner, Wisconsin, in the northwestern part of the state.
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources used motion-sensitive cameras to confirm the presence of the animal in Greene County in southern Indiana on May 7, 2010. Another sighting in late 2009 in Clay County in west-central Indiana was confirmed by the DNR.
A cougar was observed roaming near Greenwich, Connecticut on June 10, 2011. Next day an animal, believed to be the same observed a day earlier in Greenwich, was killed by a car on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford, Connecticut. When its DNA was examined wildlife officials concluded that it was a wild cougar from the Black Hills of South Dakota that had wandered at least 1,500 miles east over an indeterminate time period.
South of the Rio Grande, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists the cat in every Central and South American country. While specific state and provincial statistics are often available in North America, much less is known about the cat in its southern range.
Being the apex predator no species preys upon mature cougars in the wild except for humans, although conflicts with other predators or scavengers do occur. In North America, of the three large predators, the massive brown bear appears dominant, often although not always able to drive both the gray wolf pack and the cougar off their kills. A study revealed that brown or American black bears visited 24 per cent of cougar kills in Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Parks, but could usurp only 10 per cent of carcasses. Bears gained up to 113 per cent, and cougars lost up to 26 per cent, of their respective daily energy requirements from these encounters.
It is cougars and gray wolves that compete more directly for prey, especially in winter. While individually cougar is more powerful than the gray wolf, the pack structure of the canines often dominates a solitary cougar. Wolves can steal cougar’s kills and occasionally kill the cat. There is a report about a large pack of fourteen wolves killing a female cougar and her kittens. In the case when wolf is alone it is the cat which usually has the upper hand and the canine is often killed. Wolves more broadly affect cougar population dynamics and distribution by dominating territory and prey opportunities, and disrupting the feline’s behavior. Research done in United State’s Yellowstone National Park, for instance, has shown displacement of cougars by wolves. A researcher in Oregon says, “When there is a pack around, cougars are not comfortable around their kills or raising kittens … A lot of times a big cougar will kill a wolf, but the pack phenomenon changes the table.” Both species, meanwhile, are capable of killing mid-sized predators such as coyotes and bobcats and tend to suppress their numbers.
In the southern part of the range, cougars and jaguars share overlapping territories. Jaguars, being stronger and heavier predators, tend to take larger prey, while cougars stick to smaller ones where their territories overlap, reducing the cougar’s size and also further reducing the likelihood of direct competition. Of the two felines, the cougar appears best able to exploit a broader prey niche and smaller prey.
In the southern part of South America cougar, also known as puma is a top level predator that has controlled the population of Guanaco and other species since prehistoric times.
Conflict between man and the beast
Due to increasing human population and expanding settlements, cougar ranges are increasingly overlapping with areas inhabited by humans. This situation has emerged as a major cause of conflict between man and the beast. Nonetheless, attacks on humans are rare, as cougars do not generally recognize humans as their prey. It has been observed that attacks on people, their pets and livestock take place only when the cat habituates to humans or is in a condition of severe starvation. Another noticeable fact is that attacks are most frequent during late spring and summer, when young predators leave their mothers in search for a new territory.
Available data shows that in hundred years, between 1890 and 1990, in North America there were 53 reported, confirmed attacks on humans, which resulted in 48 nonfatal injuries and 10 human deaths (the total is greater than 53 because some attacks had more than one victim). But this count climbed up to 88 attacks and 20 deaths by the year 2004.
Even within North America, the distribution of attacks is not uniform. California, a heavily populated state, has seen a dozen attacks since 1986 including three fatalities, whereas in the last 95 years (from 1890 to 1985) there were just three attacks. On the other hand less populated New Mexico reported an attack in 2008, the first since 1974.
Like most predators cougars are also most likely to attack when cornered. Fleeing is not a good strategy to avoid the animal as it often stimulates its instinct to chase and kill neither “playing dead” works. Standing still however may cause the cougar to consider a person easy prey. What may work is exaggerating the threat to the animal through intense eye contact, making loud but calm shouting, and any other action to appear larger and more menacing. Fighting back with sticks and rocks, or even bare hands, is often effective in persuading the animal to disengage.
Attacking cougars usually employ their characteristic neck bite, attempting to position their long teeth between the vertebrae and into the spinal cord. Neck, head, and spinal injuries are common and sometimes fatal. Children are at greatest risk of attack, and least likely to survive an encounter. Detailed research done on attacks that took place prior to 1991 showed that 64 per cent of the victims–and almost all fatalities–were children. The same study also revealed that the highest proportion of attacks took place in British Columbia, especially on Vancouver Island where cougar population is quite dense. Preceding attacks on humans, the cat displays aberrant behavior, such as activity during daylight hours, lack of fear of humans, and stalking humans. There have sometimes been incidents of pet cougars mauling people.
Killing of Livestock
During the early years of ranching in the Americas, pumas were considered as destructive as wolves. In Texas alone in 1990, 86 calves, 253 Mohair goats, 302 Mohair kids, 445 sheep and 562 lambs were confirmed to have been killed by cougars. In 1992 in Nevada 9 calves, 1 horse, 4 colts, 5 goats, 318 sheep and 400 lambs were killed. In both places, sheep were the most frequently killed. Cougar bites on the back of the neck or head to kill its prey, which is very different from the throat bite used by coyotes and indiscriminate mutilation by feral dogs. The size of the tooth puncture marks helps distinguish kills made by cougars from those made by smaller predators.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently lists the cougar as a “least concern” (a category assigned to extant species or lower taxa which have been evaluated but do not qualify for any other category such as threatened or Near Threatened, etc.) species. Cougars are regulated under Appendix-I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), rendering illegal international trade in specimens or parts.
In the US east of the Mississippi River, the only unambiguously known cougar population is the Florida panther. Until 2011, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recognized both an Eastern cougar (claimed to be a subspecies by some, denied by others) and the Florida panther, affording protection under the Endangered Species Act. Certain taxonomic authorities have collapsed both designations into the North American cougar, with Eastern or Florida subspecies not recognized, while a subspecies designation remains recognized by some conservation scientists. In 2003 recovery agencies reported a documented count of 87 individuals for the Florida sub-population. On March 2, 2011, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Eastern cougar (Puma concolor couguar) officially extinct. However, with the taxonomic ambiguity about its existence as a subspecies as well as the possibility of eastward migration of cougars from the western range, the subject remains open.
This vagueness has been recognized by Canadian authorities and their federal agency known as Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada rates its current data as “insufficient” to draw inferences concerning the eastern cougar’s survival, and notes on its Web site “Despite many sightings in the past two decades from eastern Canada, there are insufficient data to evaluate the taxonomy or assign a status to this cougar.” Despite several reported sightings in Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, it has been said that the evidence is inconclusive: “. . . there may not be a distinct ‘eastern’ subspecies, and some sightings may be of escaped pets.”
Cougars are protected across much of their range. As of 1996, their killing was prohibited in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, French Guiana, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Panama, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela. While it had no reported legal protection in Guyana, Ecuador and El Salvador. Regulated hunting of these cats is still common in the US and Canada, although they are protected from all hunting in the Yukon; Cougars are usually hunted with packs of dogs, until the animal is ‘treed’. When hunter arrives on the scene, he shoots the cat from the tree at close range. In California cougars cannot be killed legally except under very specific circumstances, such as when an individual is declared a threat to public safety. Restrictions notwithstanding the statistics from the Department of Fish and Game indicate that cougar killings in California have been on the rise since 1970s with an average of over 112 cats killed per year from 2000 to 2006 compared to six per year in the 1970s.
Threats to the species’ existence include environmental degradation, persecution as a pest animal, habitat fragmentation and depletion of the prey base. Wildlife corridors and sufficient range areas are critical to the sustainability of cougar populations. Research simulations have shown that the animal faces a low extinction risk in areas of 2200 km2 (850 sq mi) or more. As few as one to four new animals entering a population per decade markedly increases persistence, foregrounding the importance of habitat corridors.
A pumapard is a hybrid offspring resulting from a union between a cougar and a leopard. Three sets of such hybrids were bred in the late 1890s and early 1900s by Carl Hagenbeck in Hamburg, Germany. Of these most did not reach adulthood. One of these was purchased in 1898 by Hamburg Zoo. A similar hybrid in Berlin Zoo purchased from Hagenbeck was a cross between a male leopard and a female puma. Hamburg Zoo’s specimen was the reverse pairing, fathered by a puma bred to an Indian leopardess.
Whether born to a male puma mated to a female leopard, or to a female puma mated to a male leopard, pumapards inherit a form of dwarfism. Those reported grew to only half the size of their parents. They had a puma-like long body (proportional to the limbs, but nevertheless shorter than either parent), but short legs. The coat is variously described as tawny, sandy or greyish with brown, chestnut or “faded” rosettes.
The indigenous inhabitants of the Americas have widely admired the grace and power of cougar in their cultures. In North America, mythological descriptions of puma have appeared in the stories of the Hoc?k language (“Ho-Chunk” or “Winnebago”) of Wisconsin and Illinois and the Cheyenne, amongst others. To the Walapai of Arizona and Apache, the wail of the animal was an omen of death. For the Algonquins and Ojibwas people cougar lived in the underworld and was wicked, while it was sacred for the Cherokee.
It is claimed that the Inca city of Cusco was designed in the shape of a cougar, and the animal also gave its name to both Inca regions and people. The animal is often represented in the ceramics of Moche people. Even the sky and thunder god of Inca, Viracocha, has been associated with the animal.
1. Eastern South American cougar (Puma concolor couguar)
This is considered by many experts to be a subspecies of the North American Cougar, while recent genetic research suggests all North American cougars are a single subspecies. While the eastern subspecies was deemed extinct by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) evaluation in 2011, a parallel Canadian organization has taken no position on the issue.
Officials of USF&WS believe that animals found in eastern North America during recent years have genetic origins in South America (as escaped captives) or are from western North America (as wandering individuals). Others claim they are surviving members of the eastern subspecies.
History of taxonomy
In 1792 Robert Kerr of the Royal Physical Society and Royal Society of Surgeons gave the name Felis couguar to eastern North American cougars found north of Florida. John Audubon, a French-American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter, in 1851 believed that cougars in both North and South America were impossible to differentiate. Nelson and Goldman were the first to assign the eastern cougar to the subspecies Felis concolor couguar in 1929. Young and Goldman described 15 subspecies in North America including the eastern cougar F.c. couguar and the Florida panther Felis concolor coryi in 1946. They based their description of eastern subspecies on their examination of eight of the existing 26 historic specimens. In 1955, Jackson described a new subspecies, the Wisconsin puma (Felis concolor schorgeri), from a small sample of skulls.
A 1981 taxonomy (Hall) accepted F. c. schorgeri, the Wisconsis puma, and also extended the range of the eastern puma into Nova Scotia and mapped the Florida panther’s (F. c. coryi) range as far north as South Carolina and southwestern Tennessee.
Culver et al., on the basis of recent genetic research, recommended in 2000 that all North American cougars be classified as a single subspecies, Puma concolor couguar.
Dr. Judith Eger of Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario, chair of the American Society of Mammalogists checklist committee, believes that the Culver work was inappropriate, as it offered no assessment of the existing subspecies of puma and failed to include ecological, morphological and behavioral considerations. According to her, the Culver revision is only accepted by some puma biologists.
Uncertainty on existence
There is a consensus among wildlife officials in 21 eastern states that the subspecies of eastern cougar is extinct from eastern United States. The Canadian government has taken no position on the subspecies’ existence, continued or otherwise, and terms the evidence “inconclusive.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which reviewed all available information and research concluded in 2011 that the subspecies has been extinct since 1930s, and also recommended that it should be removed from its list of endangered species.
In 1998 a study was conducted for Canada’s national Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. It concluded “that there is no objective evidence (actual cougar specimens or other unequivocal confirmation) for the continuous presence of cougars since the last century anywhere in eastern Canada or the eastern United States outside of Florida.” However, the committee’s Web site as of 2011 says that data is “insufficient” to draw inferences concerning the subspecies’ continued existence, or even whether it ever existed at all.
Despite the various official claims and studies numerous inhabitants of eastern North America, especially from rural areas, have reported as many as 10,000 cougar sightings since 1960s and many continue to believe the subspecies has survived. In March 2011, an official with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources claimed that the animals are present in the province. He said individual cougars in Ontario may be escaped zoo animals or pets or may have migrated from the western parts of North America. Privately run Ontario Puma Foundation estimates that there are 550 cougars in the province and their numbers are increasing steadily to a sustainable population.
2. North American Cougar (Puma concolor couguar)
This is a subspecies that was once common in the eastern North America and Canada. It still exists in the western half of the continent. As well as several previous subspecies of cougar of the western United States and western Canada, Puma concolor couguar encompasses the remaining populations of the Eastern Cougar, where the cat was also known as the Panther, the only unequivocally known of which is the critically endangered Florida panther population. Many extinct populations, such as the Wisconsin Cougar, which was extirpated in 1925, are also included in the subspecies.
Western United States has several populations still existing and thriving, but the North American cougar was once commonly found in eastern portions of the United States and Canada. It was believed to be extirpated in the early 1900s. Today there are evidence to support that pumas could be on the rise in Mexico and might have a substantial population in years to come. Some mainstream cougar experts believe that small relict populations may exist, especially in the Appalachian Mountains and eastern Canada. In Fundy National Park in New Brunswick recent findings in hair traps have confirmed the existence of at least three cougars in New Brunswick. Some theories suggest that above sightings and scientific data (hair samples) are possibly from a feral breeding population of former pets, possibly hybridizing with native North American cougar remnants, or claim that pumas from the western United States have been expanding their range eastwards.
Sighting in Chicago
Genetic analysis of DNA from a cougar sighting in Wisconsin in 2008 indicated that the animal was in Wisconsin and that it was not captive. Speculation was that it might have migrated from a native population in the Black Hills of South Dakota; however, the genetic analysis could not affirm that hypothesis. It is also not clear whether there are other cougars also, especially the breeding population. However, a second sighting was reported and tracks were also documented in a nearby Wisconsin community, but a genetic analysis could not be done and a determination could not be made. This cougar later made its way south into the northern Chicago suburb of Wilmette. On April 14, 2008, an animal triggered a flurry of reports before being cornered and killed in the Chicago neighborhood of Roscoe Village. The cougar was the first sighted in the city limits of Chicago since the city was founded in 1833.
3. Costa Rican Cougar (Puma concolor costaricensis)
This is a subspecies of Least Concern. It generally hunts at night and may sometimes travel long distances in search of food. The animal has a solid tan-colored coat without spots and its average litter size is 3 cubs. It ranks as the second largest cat in Costa Rica after jaguar and can be found in various places and habitats. Weighing 25-80kg it is amazingly fast like other cougars and can maneuver quite easily and skillfully. Even though conservation efforts for the Costa Rican Cougar have decreased as compared to Jaguar, it is still less hunted because it does not have spots.
4. Northern South American cougar (Puma concolor concolor)
This is a subspecies found in the northern part of South America, from Colombia and Venezuela to Peru and northern Brazil. It is the nominate subspecies of Puma concolor (in zoological nomenclature when a species is split into subspecies, the originally described population is retained as the “nominate subspecies” or “nominotypical subspecies”, which repeats the same name as the species, e.g. Motacilla alba alba (often abbreviated Motacilla a. alba) is the nominotypical subspecies of the White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). This cougar subspecies preys on sloths, deer, agoutis, lizards, birds, mice and frogs.
There is almost no literature available on the following subspecies.
1. Argentine puma (Puma concolor cabrerae)
2. Southern South American puma (Puma concolor puma)