The cougar (Puma [or Felis] concolor) is a cat of many names. Mountain lion, panther,
puma, painter, and catamount are some of the other names used to refer to this species.
Cougars and Other Cats
The cougar is the second largest member of the cat family (Felidae) in the Western
Hemisphere. The only cat in the Americas that is larger is the jaguar, of Central and South
There are as many as 30, or as few as 6, subspecies of cougars—depending on the scientist
doing the classifying. The name “panther” is commonly used to refer to a cougar subspecies in
Florida. However, “panther” is also used to refer to the leopard (Panthera pardus), an entirely
different species that lives in Asia and Africa. The “black panther” is a leopard with a genetic
mutation that makes its skin and fur contain large amounts of a dark pigment called melanin.
Where Cougars Live
The cougar is the most widely distributed carnivore in the Western Hemisphere, living from
southern Canada to southern South America. In the United States, it is found mostly in the western
states, from the Rocky Mountains to California. Cougars live in a variety of habitats,
including mountains, coniferous and deciduous forests, grasslands, deserts, and swamps.
The Cougar's Body
The cougar’s body, not counting the tail, may be 6 feet in length. The tail adds another 2
to 3 feet to the animal’s length. Cougars have long muscular legs, which allow them to run as fast
as 35 miles per hour and to leap as high as 18 feet. Cougars typically weigh between 110 and 200
pounds, with males being heavier than females.
The cougar’s coat is plain, with no spots or stripes—which is unusual for a wild cat. The
animal’s fur color varies from tawny to reddish to silvery gray. Its throat and belly are white.
The hunting strategy of the cougar usually consists of carefully stalking its prey under cover
and then suddenly leaping out at it. The cougar grabs its prey with the sharp claws of its front
paws and then bites the animal’s neck to break it. The prey is dragged to a sheltered spot, such
as under a tree or rock overhang, where the cougar can eat it in peace.
The cougar’s diet includes both large and small animals, such as deer, bighorn sheep, elk,
moose, wild hogs, rabbits, and mice. Cougars even eat porcupines—with the quills! Cougars often
store uneaten food in caches, covered with dirt, to be eaten later.
Cougars may hunt during the day or night, though they are most active around dusk and dawn.
They tend to be solitary and secretive animals, except for mating time. They use thick brush,
rocky crevices, or caves as shelter when they want to rest or protect themselves from bad weather.
The home range (the area in which an animal normally lives) of a cougar may be larger than
125 square miles. A cougar marks its territory with various kinds of signs to warn other cougars
to stay out, such as scrapes in the dirt or snow, scratched logs, piles of leaves, and urine and
feces. However, the large home range of a male may overlap the smaller homes ranges of several
Unlike most other large wild cats, the cougar does not roar. But it does growl, whistle, hiss,
and purr. In addition, females ready to mate sometimes make a loud eerie cry that resembles the
sound of a person screaming.
Cougars may breed at any time of the year. A male typically mates with several females during the
year. A female typically mates once every two to three years.
Approximately 90 days after mating, the female gives birth to one to six (usually two or three)
kittens in a secluded den among rocks, in a thicket, or in some other sheltered place. The kittens
weigh only about one pound at birth and have their eyes and ears closed until they are one or two
weeks old. Kittens nurse for five or six weeks before they can eat solid food.
Cougar kittens have light-colored fur with large brownish-blackish spots, which fade away by the
time the cat is six months old. The mother cougar may take care of her offspring for as long as two
years, teaching them to hunt and to defend themselves. Male cougars play no role in caring for
offspring, and they may even kill their own kittens should they come across them. Cougars are
able to breed when they are two or three years old.
Cougars usually live between 12 and 20 years. There are no predators that attack cougars.
However, cougars are sometimes killed in struggles with large prey. For example, an elk
might kill a cougar with its antlers or hooves. The main threats to cougar survival come
from harmful human activities.
Cougar Populations in the United States
Cougars have been eliminated from roughly two-thirds of their historic range in North
America, mainly as a result of habitat destruction, hunting, and killings by automobiles. These
large cats once roamed throughout the United States, from the east coast to the west coast.
Today, however, they remain relatively common in only the Rocky Mountains region and the states
west of these mountains. Since the 1960’s, when many western states instituted hunting
restrictions and eliminated bounties on cougars, the populations of cougars in this region
have been increasing.
There are no known breeding populations of cougars in the states east of the Rocky
Mountains—except for southern Florida, where approximately 60 members of the Florida panther
subspecies (Puma concolor coryi) live. The survival of this highly endangered subspecies is at
risk because of destruction of its habitat by human development and contamination of its habitat
by agricultural and residential pesticides. Inbreeding, which makes animals more susceptible to
disease, also places the Florida panther’s survival at risk.
In recent years, there have been scattered sightings of individual cougars in a number of
states in the southeastern and midwestern regions of the United States, including southern and
western Illinois. Scientists believe that these sightings may be evidence that cougars are
beginning to naturally re-establish themselves in these areas.
Article Written By: Alfred J. Smuskiewicz
MAIN SOURCES USED IN RESEARCH:
- World Book Online: Cougar, Panther articles, 2008.
- David Burnie, Don E. Wilson, editors. Smithsonian Institution Animal. Dorling
Kindersley Publishers, 2001.
- Joseph A. Chapman, George A. Feldhamer, editors. Wild Mammals of North America. The
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
- William H. Burt, Richard P. Grossenheider. A Field Guide to the Mammals. Houghton
Mifflin Company, 1976.