Also known as mountain lions, panthers or pumas, cougars (Felis concolor) are native to North America and exist only in the Western Hemisphere. The known range of cougars includes all of California, and about half of the state is prime mountain lion country. In California, some 5,000 cougars are estimated to inhabit the coastal mountains, northern forests, Sierra Nevada and southern deserts.
Mountain Lions are found in urban fringes as well as in rural areas. This fact is a surprise to many residents and visitors. These large, powerful predators have always lived here, preying on deer and other wildlife, and playing an important role in the ecosystem.
A cougar's natural life span is approximately 10 years in the wild. The few natural enemies of the mountain lion include large predators such as bears, wolves and other lions. Mountain lions live a solitary existence and roam enourmous territories.
A cougar's coat is a plain, tawny brown. Their distinctive heavy tail measures almost two-thirds the length of head and body. The sexes look alike, but males are 30 to 40 percent larger. Males measure six to eight feet from nose to tail tip, compared with five to seven feet for females. A typical adult male weighs between 110 and 180 pounds.
Cougars have four toes on each paw and three distinct lobes at the base of each heel pad. Their front paws are larger than their rear paws. When walking slowly, mountain lions usually place their hind paw in the imprint made by their front paw. In a brisk walk or run, the hind feet overreach the front feet. Generally, claw marks are not visible since their claws are retractable. Cougars are solitary animals, and males almost always travel alone. Tracks indicated two or more lions traveling together would most likely be from a female and her kittens or a pair of siblings.
Mountain lions produce a wide variety of sounds similar to house cat hisses, growls and mews. They are also capable of making high-pitched whistles and a vary piercing, drawn-out scream. Observations made on captive lions indicate that only females emit this scream, usually associated with mating.
Cougars are extraordinarily adaptable and have the largest range of any wild cat. They can be found in every type of habitat in California. The big cats make their home from southern deserts to humid coast range forests, from foothill chaparral to the high desert and from sea level to 10,000 foot elevations in the Sierra Nevada. They are particularly fond of rocky foothill and mountainous areas that support populations of deer, elk, small mammals and large rodents.
Hunting and Feeding
Deer are the favorite prey of cougars, but they are opportunistic predators and will also kill elk, porcupines, small mammals, rodents, livestock and domestic animals. Mountain lions are most active from dusk to dawn, but they will hunt and travel in daylight.
Cougars are specialized carnivores who prefer to kill their own food. Like most cats, they take their prey by ambush rather than by a long pursuit. Lions usually stalk their prey, using available cover, then attack from behind. They usually kill with a powerful bite below the base of the skull, breaking the prey's neck.
A cougar will cover the carcass with dirt and leaves and will usually return to feed on it over the course of a few days. Generally, the carcass is moved and re-covered after each feeding.
Mating and breeding
Mountain lions can breed year-round, but most births occur between April and July. Females generally begin mating at two to three years of age. Mating is one of the few times adult lions come together. After a male locates a female in heat, they will stay together only a few days while mating takes place. After a gestation period of approximately 90 days, the female will give birth to two to three kittens. Newborn kittens are about a foot long, weigh about one pound and their coats are covered with black and brown spots with rings around their tails.
Care of the kittens is the sole responsibility of the female. She will aggressively defend her young against male lions, who may kill them. Kittens remain with their mother for approximately 18 months. They learn hunting skills through play, exploration and by watching their mother. At six months, the kittens weigh over 30 pounds and have learned vital hunting skills. During the last months with their mother, the young will practice and improve these skills.