Did you know the cougar holds one of the Guinness World Records for having the most names? Often called “the cat of many names,” it’s referred to as the puma, panther, mountain cat, mountain lion, mountain screamer, painter and catamount, just to name a few. In fact, the cougar has more monikers than almost any other living mammal, around 40 in English alone. The reason: The name used depends on location, and there are a lot of those to be had.
Due to the cougar’s knack for adaptability — think a fast and powerful muscular body, sharp eyesight and keen hearing, as well as the ability to swim, climb trees and jump long distances — this cat can be seen thriving in many varied habitats, from the Southern Andes in South America to the Yukon in Canada, and everywhere from forests to open areas with sparse vegetation. Current mountain lion ranges in the western portion of the U.S., meanwhile, stretch from Texas to the Canadian border, with the only confirmed population in the East found in Florida.
“Many of the different names originated from the local people of their native range,” says Dr. Jeremy Goodman, executive director of Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island. For example, he explains, the Incas called the animal puma, while the name cougar is a version of the old South American Indian word cuguacuarana (which was shortened to cuguar, and then spelled differently). Panther, meanwhile, is a generic term for any large cat with a solid-colored coat, and mountain lion was probably coined by Spanish explorers who labeled it both leon (lion) and gato monte (cat of the mountain).
No matter what you call the cougar, however, it’s still the same cat — Puma concolor (the scientific name was changed from Felis concolor in recent decades) — and it’s recognized as the largest of the small cat species.
So, Are There Any Differences Between Cougars and Mountain Lions?
The short answer is no, because they are from the same species, but there do tend to be some slight contrasts in overall size due to geographical concerns, diet and climate. “There are no significant differences other than vernacular taxonomy, if you will,” says Charlie Jasper, founder of C&C Security Consultants, whose private clients live on the urban/wilderness divide in Los Angeles, necessitating his expertise in helping them to deny access to predators on their property.
“Panthers in Florida and the Southeastern U.S., like most creatures there, tend to be a little smaller,” he adds. “If you compare a Carolinian white tail deer with its equivalent up in Maine, it’s like looking at a labradoodle versus a wolf.”
In general, most cougars have slender bodies, with somewhat round heads and erect ears, and display a solid, tawny-colored coat (which is how they got the name “concolor”), complete with a whitish underside and slightly dark hair covering the back. In humid ecosystems, the animals tend to be darker and reddish brown, while those living in colder regions are covered with thicker and longer silver-gray hair.
Cougars are powerfully built, with large paws, retractable claws and sharp carnivorous teeth. The hind legs are more muscular than the forelegs, which enables them to jump up to 18 feet (5.4 meters) from a tree or 20 feet (6 meters) down a mountain. Cougars have a flexible spine, much like that of a cheetah, which allows them to maneuver and change directions abruptly.
Adults can reach a length of 5 feet (1.5 meters), with the tail length ranging from 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to 0.9 meters). Males are heavier than females, at between 115 and 220 pounds (52 and 99 kilograms), while females grow from 65 to 140 pounds (29 to 63 kilograms).
Are They Dangerous?
“Mountain lions are apex predators and should be considered dangerous, although attacks on humans are extremely rare,” says Goodman.
As with many predators, however, a cougar may attack if cornered, or a fleeing human stimulates a cougar’s instinct to chase or a person “plays dead” and seems like a target. In case of an attack, intense eye contact, loud but calm shouting, and any other action that might make a human appear larger and more menacing than they are likely will make the animal retreat. Fighting back with sticks and rocks, or even bare hands, also can be effective when it comes to disengaging an attacking cougar.
When cougars do attack, they usually employ their characteristic neck bite. That means they attempt to position their teeth between the vertebrae and into the spinal cord, sometimes resulting in fatal neck, head and spinal injuries. Children are at greatest risk of attack, as well as the least likely to survive an encounter.
What Do Cougars Eat?
The cougar is a carnivore, which means it requires meat in its diet, but it will eat any animal it can catch, from insects to large hoofed mammals. Its primary prey are various deer species — including mule and white-tailed deer, elk and even moose — while other food bases can include bighorn sheep, horses and domestic livestock (like cattle and sheep).
“They will eat various kinds of deer, pronghorn, wild goats and sheep (if they can get them), livestock, South American domestic and wild camelids (llama, vicuña, guanaco, alpaca), pets, birds, various rodents (porcupines, rabbits, capybara, you name it),” says Jasper. “In the Pacific Northwest, they’ll even eat certain weasels, and sea lions and seals. Oh, and they’ll go after other predators, too, to reduce competition and feed themselves to boot.”
The cougar is capable of breaking the neck of some of its smaller prey with a strong bite, and then with momentum, bearing the animal to the ground. Kills are generally estimated at around one large mammal every two weeks, while females raising their young may kill every three days.
The cat commonly drags a kill to a preferred spot, covers it with brush and returns to feed over several days. The cougar generally is a non-scavenger, meaning it rarely consumes prey it hasn’t killed.
Do Cougars Need Protection?
Of the 20 subspecies of cougar, three are considered endangered: the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi), the Eastern puma (Puma concolor couguar) and the Costa Rican puma (Puma concolor costaricensis).
Mountain lion populations have historically been hunted out of fear of the animals killing ranchers’ livestock, but with populations continuing to expand into the mountain lions’ habitat, it is likely that there will be increased human-animal conflict that may necessitate continued protection.