The cougar goes by many names: mountain lion, puma, deer tiger, red tiger, panther and, its taxonomic name, Puma concolor. The largest of the small cat species, these agile animals can jump up to 20 feet from the ground into a tree. Agility isn’t the cougar’s only defining characteristic -- these perceptive cats are skilled hunters and masters of communication.
Cougars are large, rivaling the jaguar in size, and are typically tawny cats with buff-colored throats, chests and bellies. Cougars living in warm, humid areas appear darker reddish-brown while those in colder climates are lighter and almost silver-gray in color. Size variation is common between sexes; males are much larger than females. An adult cougar can weigh between 75 and 250 pounds and measure between 3.5 and 6.5 feet long, depending on sex and geographic location. Cougars tend to grow larger the further they live from the equator.
Cougars have an extensive geographic range in North America. They inhabit Alaska and northern Canada, through the United States and Chile and Argentina. Although mostly gone from the eastern U.S., there are still populations surviving in Florida. They live in a variety of habitats including coniferous and tropical forests, grasslands, swamps, caves and deserts. Highly territorial mammals, their home ranges vary in size from 30 to 125 square miles.
As solitary cats, cougars don’t often interact with each other unless mating or child-rearing; however, they are skilled at the art of communication. Cougars leave messages for each other in the form of urine and feces marking as well as deep scratches on trees. This is their way of delineating territory without coming face-to-face. Mothers, cubs and enemies also communicate through a series of growls, low-pitched hisses, purrs and screams.
As members of the Felidae family, cougars are carnivorous felines. These top predators consume a variety of large and small mammals such as squirrels, raccoons, armadillos, pigs, deer, coyote, elk, caribou and moose. Cougars are powerfully built, agile hunters. Their hind legs are more muscular than their front legs and give them tremendous jumping power. Their flexible spines and quick speed afford these cats the ability to change directions in a flash, essential for both ambushing and chasing prey. Cougars quietly stalk their prey, then leap at close range for attack; however, they also have to be ready for a chase if an agile deer makes a run for it.
Cougars breed year-round in their home territories with a swift courtship and copulation that lasts less than a few minutes. Cougar mothers give birth to between one and six cubs who will stay with her until they're 12 to 18 months of age.
Christina Stephens is a writer from Portland, Ore. whose main areas of focus are pets and animals, travel and literature. A veterinary assistant, she taught English in South Korea and holds a BA in English with cum laude honors from Portland State University.