A captive mountain lion at Wild Animal Park, Sedona, Arizona, USA © 2007 AskJoanne
Puma (Felis) concolor is just one of the many names applied to one of North America's most stunning feline species. Their many aliases include names such as cougar, mountain lion, puma, and panther, and these are only a few of the most commonly used titles for these cats. One explanation for the variety of names held by the mountain lion is perhaps the fact that these felines have the greatest distribution of any native terrestrial species in the entire western hemisphere, ranging from the northern reaches of Canada to Argentina.
Mountain lions are one of several surviving species of native felines in the western hemisphere, and one of only two remaining large cat species in the area, the other being the jaguar, Panthera onca. About 13,000 years ago, there were several other species of large cats that flourished in North and South America, including the lion-like Panthera atrox, the cheetah-like Miracinonyx trumani and the sabre-toothed Smilodon and Homotherium. Research has shown that Miracinonyx trumani is genetically more similar to mountain lions than to the surviving African cheetah of today. Research also shows that, while the mountain lion is related to the sabre-toothed cats, it did not directly descend from them.
Mountain lions are large, slender cats which can weigh between 29-120 kg and can reach lengths up to 2.75 m. Males are larger and heavier than females on average. Mountain lions have short, muscular limbs and long, cylindrical tails that reach nearly one third of the animal’s full length. They have four digits on their hind feet and five digits on their front feet, along with retractable claws. Mountain lions also have an extra premolar on both sides of their upper jaws unlike other local feline species such as bobcats and lynxes. The colouration of mountain lions varies between yellowish and greyish fur coats with buff undersides. Other markings include a white throat and chest as well as black markings behind their ears, at the tip of their tail and along their muzzles.
Mountain lions have the widest distribution of any native terrestrial species in the western hemisphere, with populations ranging from Alaska to Argentina and Chile. Many of these populations have been wiped out over time, with urban settlements intruding into the mountain lion’s natural territories. Due to the large historical range of the species, however, mountain lions have adapted to live in a number of diverse habitats, including:
Mountain lions are primarily nocturnal and solitary animals, interacting with other members of their species during mating and over periods of parental care for offspring. They are territorial animals, marking territories using urine sprayed near scrapes that they leave on trees. The population density of mountain lions can range from 1 per 85 km2 to as high as 1 per 13 km2, depending on the abundance of available resources, such as prey. Some mountain lions will keep a summer and winter territory, requiring them to migrate at different times of the year. Males often range together for a period shortly after leaving their mothers.
Mountain lions are carnivorous, feeding on a wide variety of prey. They quietly stalk prey, leaping at close range and breaking the neck in a powerful bite near the base of the animal’s skull. They often cache food for later by burying it in leaves or other debris. Mountain lions hunt ungulates such as moose, white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, and caribou, as well as a wide variety of smaller species such as rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, muskrats, beavers, porcupines, skunks, birds, possums, fish and even snails. Occasionally mountain lions will feed on larger prey such as coyotes, bobcats, and even other mountain lions. They will also occasionally hunt livestock and pets.
Adult mountain lions have been known to use the following vocalizations:
Mountain lion cubs use loud chirping calls to communicate with their mothers. Touch between mothers and offspring is also an important form of communication, helping to establish a bond between the cubs and their mother. Other forms of non-vocal communication between adult mountain lions include scent marking for claiming territories and by females trying to attract males for mating.
Courtship and Mating
Male mountain lions remain reproductively active until they are at least 20 years old, and females remain fertile until at least the age of 12. Female mountain lions in estrous rub against objects in their territories and vocalize frequently to gain the attention of a potential mate. Male territories overlap those of several females, which they attempt to keep as their personal mates. Actual copulation between mountain lions lasts less than a minute, but couplings can occur as frequently as 9 times an hour. There is a 67% chance of conception per mating. Mating between mountain lions can occur at any time of year, although it usually takes place between December and March in more northern latitudes.
Gestation and Birth
The gestation period for mountain lions ranges between 84-106 days. Females usually bear a litter of 1-6 cubs every other year, with an average litter size of 3-4 cubs. The female mountain lion gives birth in sheltered areas where she can keep her offspring protected while they are helpless.
Mountain lion cubs open their eyes about 10 days after birth and are weaned at about 40 days after birth. The cubs remain with their mother for an average of around 15 months before they disperse to new territories. Males will become sexually mature at around 3 years of age, while females will mature at about 2.5 years of age. The average lifespan of a mountain lion is 18-20 years.
Economic Importance to Humans
Mountain lions are often considered to be a dangerous pest, as they have been known to prey on domestic pets and livestock. They have also been known to attack humans, especially as urban centers intrude further into mountain lion habitat. Despite all of this, mountain lions are valuable additions to zoos and prized as trophy animals in some areas. They are also a vital part in the maintenance of ungulate populations, being one of the western hemisphere’s top predators.
Information on the Internet
- Puma concolor on Animal Diversity Web Collection of facts on mountain lions from the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.
- Index of Species: Puma concolor Information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding mountain lions.
- DNA Traces Evolution of Extinct Big Cats Information regarding the evolution of large species of cats in the Americas.