Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Length: males—3 to 6 feet (90 to 180 centimeters); females—3 to 5 feet (90 to 150 centimeters)
Height at shoulder: 1.9 to 2.3 feet (60 to 70 centimeters)
Weight: males—147 to 227 pounds (67 to 103 kilograms); females—79 to 132 pounds (36 to 60 kilograms)
Life span: up to 20 years
Gestation: 3 months
Number of young at birth: 1 to 6, usually 3 or 4
Size at birth: 8 to 15 ounces (227 to 425 grams)
Age of maturity: 2 to 3 years
Conservation status: common in many areas, although some subspecies are vulnerable or endangered.
Mountain lions can jump 18 feet (5.5 meters) from
the ground into a tree, and they have been known to jump
20 feet (6.1 meters) up or down a hillside. That’s
the height of many two-story buildings!
Mountain lions are good swimmers, but they’d rather not get in the water because they don’t seem to like being wet.
Even though we hear it a lot in movies and on TV, mountain lions don’t make that "wild cat scream" very often. More common vocalizations are whistles, squeaks, growls, purrs, hisses, and yowls.
Some mountain lions eat porcupines, quills and all, apparently without any harm!
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Listen to a mountain lion!
Mammals: Mountain Lion (Puma, Cougar)
Mountain lion, puma, cougar, panther—this cat is known by more names than just about any other mammal! But no matter what you call it, it’s still the same cat, Puma concolor, the largest of the small cat species. So how did it get so many names? Mostly because it has such a large range, and people from different countries have called it different things. Early Spanish explorers to North and South America called it leon (lion) and gato monte (cat of the mountain), from which we get the name "mountain lion." Puma is the name the Incas gave this cat in their language. Cougar seems to have come from an old South American Indian word, cuguacuarana, which was shortened to cuguar and then spelled differently. And panther is a general term for cats that have solid-colored coats, so it was used for pumas as well as black jaguars. All of these names are considered correct, but scientists usually use the name puma.
Here in Southern California they are commonly called mountain lions. You may have heard of the Florida panther. This is a subspecies of mountain lion that used to be found from Texas throughout the southeast, but is now only found in Florida. It is endangered, with only about 50 cats left, and conservation efforts are underway to try to save it.
Home on the range
Mountain lions are solitary cats, except during breeding and when a mother has cubs. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have any contact with one another. They live in areas called "home ranges," which vary in size from 30 to 125 square miles (78 to 324 square hectares). These ranges overlap, so the cats share some parts. The home ranges of the males tend to be the largest, and they overlap the smaller ranges of several females. The cats may actually see each other once in awhile, but mostly they leave "messages" for each other: feces, urine, scratched logs, and marks they scrape out in the dirt or snow. The home range is where each cat spends most of its time and does most of its hunting. Mountain lions find shelter to rest or get away from bad weather in thick brush, rocky crevices, or caves, which might be anywhere in their home range. Only mothers set up a specific den, where they give birth to their cubs and stay with them until they are old enough to go out hunting, at about six months of age.
Getting a jump on dinner
Mountain lions are powerfully built, with large paws, sharp claws, and hind legs that are larger and more muscular than their front legs to give them great jumping power. They can also run fast and have a flexible spine like a cheetah’s to help them maneuver around obstacles and change direction quickly. Even so, they are mostly ambush hunters. Mountain lions eat a variety of prey depending on where they live, including deer, pigs, capybaras, raccoons, armadillos, hares, and squirrels. Some larger cats even bring down animals as big as an elk or a moose. At the San Diego Zoo, mountain lions are fed carnivore diet, large bones, and sometimes parts of carcasses.
Mountain lions and people
As more people have moved into the mountain lion's territory, the number of encounters with these cats has increased. This is often "big news" and frightens people. But overall, meeting a mountain lion is an unlikely event. The cats don’t want to confront humans, and they will do their best to avoid us. You can avoid them, too, by not hiking alone, or at dusk and dawn when mountain lions are hunting. Make noise as you hike, and don’t leave food out around a cabin or campsite, especially at night. If you do happen across a mountain lion, never approach it—always give it a way to escape.
Some people have considered mountain lions to be pests and shot them on sight, or trapped or poisoned them. That’s one of the reasons the cats have become scarce across North America. It’s important to remember that mountain lions have an essential role to play in their ecosystems. They are one of the top predators, and without them populations of deer and other animals would become unhealthy and too large for the habitat. It’s true that mountain lions can be dangerous, and problem cats should be reported to local animal control agencies, like the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. But people like to live and play in or near wild places, so we need to understand and respect the wildlife that also lives there. If we take responsibility for our own actions, pets, livestock, and property, we can learn to live with mountain lions and appreciate their power and grace.