Caturday Special: The Cougar (Puma concolor)

It’s a damn handsome cat! That head and jawline is impeccable, look at the musculature on those forelimbs. They have big paws…It’s a sexy cat! A damn sexy cat! (Credit: IanZA via Pixabay)

The cougar, or puma, or mountain lion, or catamount, or painter, or panther, or mountain screamer, or ghost cat, or shadow cat is probably the cat (if not the animal) with the most colloquial names. I will use the term cougar, until a particular population later on that I will refer to as the Florida Panther.

There’s a reason for this overabundance of names and that is that this beautiful cat is so widespread. It was once basically all over sub-Arctic North America, the Eastern side of the US is now no longer home to known populations of cougar. However they still stretch pretty much from the Yukon in Canada all the way down the West of the United States, through Central America, across the isthmus and all the way down to just shy of the tip of Argentina. It’s a remarkable distribution, it really is.

There is some evidence of members of the Puma genus existing in the Old World (fossils of the extinct Puma pardoides) but otherwise they’re a New World cat.  

Map of distribution based on 2010 data. Red is known range, yellow is severly reduced or extinct range and pink is possible contemporary range. (Credit: Kokosdieb CC-BY-SA 3.0)

As one of their nicknames suggests they seem to enjoy mountainous terrain, and enjoy chilling around crags and cliffs and the associated pastures. They are quite opportunist for a big cat species (many big cats seem to have selective prey preference) and they are known to eat everything from rabbits and rodents to deer and wild goats and sheep. They do so mostly during twilight (crepuscular) and at night (nocturnal).

Sometimes they come into conflict with farmers by attacking livestock species.

They’re no slouch in the size department, second largest American cat behind the Jaguar, but they’re also bulky. They have a muscular build, strong legs and a handsome, chiselled, square face. That said its territory overlaps with that of wolves, grizzly bears and, in one specific spot, alligators – so for as big, chonky and powerful as these cats are they are not always at the top of the food chain. This is probably a good explanation for their secretive nature and the ‘ghost’ and ‘shadow’ cat nicknames.

What is incredible to note is that the cougar is a member of the Felinae subfamily, not the Pantherinae. That means, genetically, the cougar is more closely related to your housecat than it is to an actual lion.

Given my recent focus on persecuted species, and covering topics like reintroductions, and people’s unfounded fears of large predators in their back-yards, it should be noted that this large predator, known for its opportunistic eating habits, that regularly has territories that overlap with human habitation has been responsible only 125 attacks on humans, of which 27 were fatal, in North America in the last century. Bees accounted for more deaths. If I’m not reading this paper incorrectly (Link to PDF), there were 10 more deaths from basketball (total 37) between 1973 and 1980, than there were deaths from cougar between 1868 and 2018.

I know I’ve written most of this article without needless profanity but…Fuck me, that’s a pretty cat. (Credit: Neil McIntosh CC-BY-2.0)

People against the reintroduction of large predators need to actually shut up.

But we’re not done with cougars! I could never release an article under 500 words, but there’s also an interesting conservation tale and you know I love those.

You see I said the cougar had all but been eliminated from the East side of North America but that ‘all but…’ is important. There is still a population in Florida. Known locally as the Florida Panther, it was once designated a unique subspecies (Puma concolor coryi) but the IUCN’s Cat Specialist Group and their Cat Classification Taskforce (I WANT THIS JOB!) revised the Puma genus in 2017. It was decided that all North-American cougar were the subspecies Puma concolor couguar, whilst the South American population would be Puma concolor concolor.  Either way, the Florida Panther is the last remaining population of cougar further east than Minnesota (There are some fragmented populations up in the Mid-North US states like Montana, the Dakotas and Minnesota etc.)

An amazing portrait from the Florida Everglades National Park. My word I just want to squish that cat! (Shoutout to Dr. Uri Burstyn!) (Credit: National Park Service Photo by Rodney Cammauf, Public Domain)

The problem with the Florida Panther is it is endangered. Historic hunting and increased human exploitation of its habitat dramatically affected their numbers. Today the most common harms to the Florida Panther are collisions with vehicles and intraspecific competition – fighting each other, likely caused by restricted habitat causing closer contact with one another. Either way back in the 70s it was estimated there were only around 20 individuals remaining in the wild.

Enter the ecologists! The more I write about projects like this the more I think they are real life superheroes.

Well they got their numbers up! But inbreeding depression took its toll. A lack of genetic diversity was harming the fitness of the Florida Panther and making it less adaptable, less fit – even giving rise to defects like kinks in the tail. Seen at a rate of about 25% in the standard cougar population the Florida Panther had a nearly 90% incidence of tail-kink!

As a result, in 1995, 8 Texan cougars were introduced to the Florida population to help boost its genetic diversity.

Whilst no significant effect has been demonstrated on males (mainly due to their shorter lifespans due to intraspecific competition (for mating) and dispersal into different, potentially dangerous habitats (for mating) so – male cougars are literally dying for a fuck!) the effect on females was pretty astounding. There was no noticeable difference on litter sizes, but the hybrid female kittens were three times more likely to reach adulthood, and survived longer than non-hybrids. The 2006 paper is available here.

I’m not 100% sure, but I suspect this Florida Panther might be flehmening – exhibiting the flehmen response. I spoke about it in my article about the domestic cat. Cats have a special organ, the vomeronasal (or Jacobson’s) organ. It is an olfactory organ, related to the sense of smell, but separate to the standard olfactory bulbs. This specific response is intended to draw the aromatic chemicals (in the cases of cats these are usually pheromones, or scents used to identify individuals, other cats etc.) into the Jacobson’s organ for sensory processing. Or it might just be a sneeze! But the curled-back ears, squinting eyes and half-open mouth are pretty indicative of a flehmen. (Credit: Everglades National Park, Public Domain)

It was considered very controversial at the time due to the Florida Panther being considered a separate subspecies but the revision based upon mitochondrial DNA by the Cat Taskforce (LET ME BE A MEMBER!) means effectively it was a same subspecies hybridisation scheme.

It was a daring project and one that means from numbering only twenty individuals who formed a genetically compromised community they now numbers in their hundreds and not only are they more genetically diverse but the scheme has been tested, it would be possible to transplant cougar from elsewhere to keep bolstering their genetic strength.

My article on the vulture discusses the California Condor Recovery Program and in that I discuss a sensible thing that group did when they took all the condors into captivity in order to better breed them – they separated them. What this did was created two separate populations that could breed, and then be swapped around to ensure genetic diversity and lack of inbreeding. It’s kind of a similar thing with Florida Panther and this sort of hybridisation could be used to save other genetically compromised animals that seem to suffer from the effects, like the cheetah.

SCHLEEPY KITTEN TAX! A baby cougar with it’s mother who looks like she’s had quite enough! (Credit: Tambako The Jaguar CC-BY-ND 2.0)

It’s an incredible story and it is so wonderful to think that there is still a population of these cats out there in Florida because they introduced a few feisty Texan ladies; some strong, Southern belles that helped their population improve.

Since I missed a Caturday Special last week I owe back Kitten-Taxes! So I wanted to show this shot of a Florida Panther mother carrying her kitten. One, because it’s adorable as all hell. Two, because you can clearly see how much darker kittens are, and also make out the remarkable spotted pattern that they lose as they age. So cute (Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region, CC-BY-2.0)

You can never have too much cat! Want to cat more cat? We’ve got lots of cat!

Top Ten Cats: Introduction – The basics of cat biology, evolution and natural history.
Top Ten Cats #10 – The Pallas’ cat – a small, very fluffy pika-hunter from Asia.
Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi – A unique and little known Puma relative.
Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard – A stealthy and stunning Asian cat.
Top Ten Cats #7 – Jaguar – Beauty in spades, loves swimming, cracks skulls with teeth…
Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion – Emblematic, beautiful and social, an amazing cat.
Top Ten Cats #5 – Black-footed cat – one of the smallest, yet most deadly wild cats.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon – Going prehistoric with the sabre-toothed cats.
Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger – One of the most gorgeous animals to have ever existed.
Top Ten Cats #2 – Cheetah – The placid lovechild of a sportscar and a murderer.
Top Ten Cats #1 – Domestic cats – Saviour of our foodstores and loving companions.

Caturday Special: The Origin Story – Proailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined.
Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics.
Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats.
Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage!
Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster.
Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena – Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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