Mountain Lion, Puma concolor
Natural History Information
Other names for mountain lions: puma, cougar, panther, catamount
Range: Historically the mountain lion ranged throughout the western hemisphere from northern British Columbia to Patagonia and from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast; the most widely distributed wild cat. Today their range in North America has been limited to the western half of the United States.
Habitat: Mountain lions inhabit most terrestrial habitats from deserts to humid coast range forest from sea level to 10,000-foot elevations. They live where there is abundant prey and stalking cover available.
Size: Male: can be more than 8 ft long and weigh 130-150 lbs, Female: can be greater than 7 ft. long and weight 65 - 90 lbs
Young: 1-6 kittens
Gestation: 3 months
Diet: predominantly white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, moose, peccary, and bighorn sheep. They will also prey on, rabbits, coyotes, and sheep.
Lifespan: approximately 12 years
Status: Due to their large home ranges it is has been difficult to attain good population data on the mountain lion. Some individual populations are listed as threatened or endangered. Mountain lions as a whole face serious threats, however, due to major habitat loss and fragmentation by highways and development. There is a year-round hunting season on mountain lions in Arizona
Threats: loss of habitat, habitat fragmentation, and persecution by humans
Anatomy / Physiology: Their hind legs are longer than their front legs for running and jumping. A long spinal column provides increased lumbar flexation while running. Cubs are born with spots to provide better camouflage. They are solid colored as adults. Their color can vary from gray, dark brown, tawny, buff or cinnamon red depending on their geographic location.
Social / Family units: Mountain lions are solitary except during breeding. Males do not help raise cubs. The cubs remain with their mother for up to 16 months at which they disperse to establish their own territories. Multiple female territories will often overlap with each other, but the females manage to avoid each other for the most part. Males have large home ranges that will overlap with multiple females. A male will mark his territory with scrapes and scent marking. Territorial disputes between males often end in death for the weaker lion.
Habits: Cats spend most of their time on the ground, but they are adept at climbing trees. They have learned to climb trees to avoid canid species which is why hunting dogs are often used to hunt the lions. Their chief range preferences are rocky precipitous canyons, escarpments, rim rocks or in absence of these, dense brush. The signpost for a male consists of a small pile of leaves and grasses which he scrapes together, and urinates on.
Communication: They communicate through scrapes and fecal mounds. They also have vocals that range from purrs, mews, hisses, growls, spits, and ÒscreamsÓ.
Defensive / Aggressive behavior: Very powerful, uses strong sharp claws and teeth to defend itself. A mountain lion will run up a tree to avoid dogs or wolves.
Predators: humans, other mountain lions
Locomotion: They can maneuver easily through rough terrain by running, swimming and climbing trees when needed. They are excellent jumpers. They can jump 18 ft into a tree and 20 feet up a hillside.
Activity: They hunt any time Ñday or nightÑ but peak at dawn and dusk and rest during midday. Their activity coincides with their prey's activity. It is not unusual to see a mountain lion during the day.
What are the threats facing mountain lions?
The main threats facing mountain lions today are habitat loss and over killing.
Mountain lions thrive in large, wild landscapes, which support their large home ranges and the prey that they feed on. They also rely heavily on open corridors to move safely between large sections of their range. Our growing population and development has increasingly limited the amount of suitable habitat space available for the lions to use. Roadways interrupt their movement patterns making it difficult for females to find males for breeding and many lions are killed by cars while trying to cross roads.
Since the 1500's when western expansion began, mountain lions have been persecuted and hunted by people. Humans compete with mountain lions for prey species and livestock. Humans also have a great fear of large carnivores. All these factors combined made for organized elimination campaigns against not only mountain lions but other large carnivores including bears, wolves and jaguars. By the early 1800's almost the entire lion population was extinct in the eastern U.S. and by the early 1900's the western population was severely diminished.
In the 1970s the mountain lion was declared a game species, providing the first form of protection the species had seen. Today, many people still view the mountain lion as a threat, and illegal kills do occur. High-speed roadways in lion habitat have increased the number of mountain lion deaths by vehicles. Wildlife officials are more and more forced to remove lions that have killed livestock or threatened people. The greatest amount of human-caused lion deaths is from legal sport hunting. The challenge with sport-hunting is that there is not a lot of sufficient population data to assist game officials in making regulatory decisions. At the moment it is difficult to assess exactly what type of impact sport hunting has on lion populations.
Why is it important to conserve and protect mountain lions?
As a large carnivore, mountain lions have a significant effect on the ecosystem in which they live. Their predatory behavior regulates the population of their prey and in turn the plant communities that their prey feeds on. If the prey population should reach its carrying capacity, mountain lions will help to bring the population back to a level that can be sustained by the plant community.
Also, since mountain lions require such expansive, wild landscape, protecting the habitat for them will in turn protect the habitat of many other species of wildlife.
Are mountain lions dangerous?
Mountain lions are very secretive animals that tend to avoid human contact. Encounters are rare and usually not threatening. In the last 100 years, only 14 fatal cougar attacks occurred on the entire North American continent. In that time, more than 15,000 people were killed by lightning; 4,000 by bees; 10,000 by deer; and 1,300 by rattlesnakes.
Experts estimate that 75 to 95 percent of all lion sightings are not mountain lions, but instead are deer, bobcats, dogs, coyotes, and even domestic cats. When you only catch a glimpse of an animal, it is easy to mistake it for something else.
There are more and more people in their habitat, however, so chances of having an encounter have increased. Although they are still rare, if you live or hike in mountain lion habitat you do need to know what to do in case of an encounter in order to avoid a negative and potentially dangerous interaction.
Here is a table that lists recommended actions with the information about mountain lions that support the actions.
Source: Cougar Management Guidelines Working Group. (2005).
Avoiding mountain lion encounters
To avoid problems with mountain lions, try not to hike, bike or jog alone in undeveloped areas, especially at dawn or dusk. Be sure to make noise while hiking in their habitat to avoid startling one.You can also take measures at home to avoid encounters in your yard.
What can I do to help the mountain lions?
Educate yourself and others
Understanding the role of mountain lions and how to coexist with them will greatly reduce public fears and persecution of this important predator.
Keep up to date with public and political decisions that affect the mountain lion, its habitat, and the species it interacts with. Be sure to let policy makers know how you feel on the issues. There are many times when policies are posted for public review. Many conservation groups will also ask for help in responding to big issues. These are great opportunities to voice your opinion.
Support conservation efforts
It is crucial that we work to preserve and restore wild areas for mountain lions to live in. There are many individuals and groups that are working to protect the land from development and roadways. Showing your support through volunteer time or monetary donations will help these groups to continue their efforts and be successful.
Ultimately we won't be able to save the mountain lion or any other species until we as a society begin to make better lifestyle choices. We need to consider the effects of all our actions.
What are we doing to help mountain lions?
Our efforts in protecting the mountain lion are multi-faceted. First we act as a voice in the community by attending meetings and helping to frame mountain lion policies. We also seek to provide education to Arizona inhabitants concerning safe co-existence with mountain lions. One of our most significant efforts entails working to protect habitat for these animals and all of Arizona’s native wildlife.
Our education campaign includes:
Logan, Kenneth A. and Linda L. Sweeney. (2001). Desert Puma: Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation of an Enduring Carnivore. Washington, DC: Island Press.Cougar Management Guidelines Working Group. (2005). Cougar Management Guidelines. (1st Edition). Bambridge Island, Washington: Wild Futures.