As the population of the United States grows, more and more wilderness area is being gobbled up and the three species of big cats in America, as well as other wild animals, are being forced to live among humans. The wild cats are mysterious and elusive and it was not that long ago that few could say they had actually seen one in the wild. Lynx, bobcats and cougars have been sighted more often in recent years, especially the cougar.

Unlike the dog which bears little resemblance to the wolf from whiMountain Lion (cougar); Photo courtesy of the US National Park Service, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of the US National Park Service, Source: Wikimedia Commonsch it descended; the domestic cat is very much like the wild cat. A cat has 28-30 teeth, including four canines that are the most developed of any carnivore. These help the big cats catch and kill their prey; however, they do not have teeth for effective grinding or chewing and their jaws do not move sideways, thus they swallow their food in whole chunks, relying on the digestive system to process the food.

Cougars are one of America’s Big Cats

At one time cougars were widely distributed over the Americas and were called by various Cougar; photo courtesy of USGov-USDA, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: photo courtesy of USGov-USDA, Source: Wikimedia Commonsnames.  East of the Mississippi, the big cat was called panther, painter, or catamount. In most of the United States, the cat was called puma, mountain lion, or cougar; Florida still calls the animal a panther and is the only eastern area where the cat lives.

When cougars are born they have Cougar Cubs; Photo courtesy of WL Miller, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of WL Miller, Source: Wikimedia Commonsspotted fur. There is usually two or three to a litter but can be as many as six.  The kittens are blind for the first two weeks of their lives. At about two months old the kittens leave the den and at six months they lose their spots.  The mother teaches the kittens to hunt and they stay with her for about 18 months at which time the mother drives them away to establish their own territories. Generally, cougars do not like to share their territories unless mating.

The cougar’s hind legs are longer than its front legs so the cougar walks with slightly elevated Cougar at Entrance of Den; Photo courtesy of Larry Moats, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of Larry Moats, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Source: Wikimedia Commonshindquarters. The cat is an agile climber and can leap vertically 18 feet and 45 feet horizontally. Its tail, used for balancing is as big around as a man’s forearm.

The cougar has few natural enemies. The only carnivore larger than this big cat in North America is the bear. However, the three largest predators in North America, the cougar, the bear, and the wolf, do coexist. The cougar usually prefers mule deer or elk, but will eat smaller prey and rodents. The only real threat to the cougar is man.  Yet the one thing that strikes fear to a cougar is a barking dog. The cougar is protected in some manner in all states in the United States that it inhabits except for Texas.

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The Lynx and Bobcats in North America

At first glance the lynx and the bobcat look identical. However, these two big cats are widely Canadian Lynx; Photo by Keith Williams, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo by Keith Williams, Source: Wikimedia Commonsdifferent when examined more closely. Both cats have long legs, short bodies and a stubby tail. Typically the bobcat is slightly smaller than the lynx. To make it more confusing, the name “wildcat” has been used to refer to both of the cats. Both have ruffs of fur around the neck and tufts on the tips of the ears; both have long whiskers.

Subtle differences are revealed upon further examination of the two cats. The bobcat’s feet are similar to the domestic cat, only much larger; the feet of the lynx are disproportionally large, like a cartoon cat’s feet might look.  The tail also has subtle differences; on the bobcat, the tail is black on top and white underneath while the lynx’s tail the entire tip is black.

The easiest way to tell the two cats apart is by the range of their habitat. The lynx makes its Bobcat in Florida; photo by Craig ONeal, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: photo by Craig ONeal, Source: Wikimedia Commonshome largely in Canada but is also found in some of the northern woods of the United States and was recently successfully reintroduced into the Colorado Rockies. The bobcat likes the more moderate climate that the United States offers and usually exists in only the southern extremities of Canada. Both cats prey on rodents, birds, rabbits and the occasional deer.

Canada lynx: wildlife celebrity

Both big cats produce one litter each year, usually one to four kittens. The young do not open Bobcat Kittens; Photo by Summer M. Tribble, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo by Summer M. Tribble, Source: Wikimedia Commonstheir eyes for several days.  The main distinction between the two cats is their demeanor.  The lynx tends to be shy and avoids humans at all costs.  The bobcat on the other hand, is quite a fierce fighter.  If trapped, the lynx will cower and quietly try to get away from the human; the bobcat will lunge and hiss with aggressive fury. 

Bobcat; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia CommonsBobcats are not considered endangered species as a whole but are endangered in Ohio, Indiana and New Jersey.  Hunting and trading of the bobcat is closely monitored as it is listed on the Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). 

Like other cats, the lynx is a silent predator that attacks quickly.  The huge paws of the lynx are well adept at moving on the top of the snow in the wintery mountains of Canada and Northern United States. The lynx dines almost exclusively on snowshoe hare. Like most other big cats, the lynx cannot sustain long periods of running; therefore, if the prey is not caught quickly, the lynx will give up and move on to continue hunting.

Like the bobcat, lynx are on the Appendix II of CITES, though is a threatened species in the Family of Lynx; Photo courtesy of Mathew Hewitt, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of Mathew Hewitt, Source: Wikimedia Commonscontiguous United States.  Their cubs are blind for two weeks after birth; when opened, the eyes are blue and turn hazel as the cubs mature. The cubs leave the den at about five weeks and begin to hunt when they are about seven to eight months old.

These three big cats of North America, cougars, lynx and bobcats are mysterious and elusive.  Most people will never see one in the wild; it is only the most fortunate who will catch a glimpse of one of these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.


The copyright of the article The Three Wild Cats of North America is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

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