The National Animal of Argentina
The cougar has the largest range of any large wild animal. Depending on the region, it may be called the puma, mountain lion, mountain cat or catamount. The genus is 'Puma' and the species 'concolor'. There are a number of subspecies although this number varies according to the source consulted. The taxonomy is currently going through a review process. The cougar is the national animal of Argentina.
The cougar is a mammal found in every major type of habitat in America. It is adaptable and a very capable predator. It is more related to the domestic cat than to true lions. Because of its efficient 'stalk and ambush' practices, it preys on a large range of ungulates including domestic species and will also take insects and rodents if times are tough. Deer, moose, elk, sheep, cattle and horses are all at risk if there is a hungry cougar around.
The cougar is territorial with the territory size depending on terrain, prey abundance and vegetation. Dense underbrush and rocky areas including rim rocks, escarpments and steep canyons all suit its method of hunting.
The cougar can be found from the Yukon, Canada to the southern Andes. Its range spans a huge 110 degrees of latitude. Along with the Canadian lynx and the bobcat, it makes up the three cat species native to Canada. Not a lot is known about the cat in its southern range. In the southern part of South America, the puma has controlled the population of guanaco and other species for many years.
The cougar has great adaptability and is found in almost all habitats, including lowlands, mountainous deserts and every type of forest area.
The cougar is slender and agile, weighing around 53 to 100 kg (adult males) with females somewhat smaller. It is about 60 to 90 cm at the shoulder and adult males have a length of about 2.4 metres of which 63 to 95 cm is the tail. In appearance they are rather like a (very!) large domestic cat with a round head and erect ears. The forequarters are powerful as is the neck and jaw. The front feet and claws are large, well capable of holding large prey. There are five claws on the forepaws of which one is a dewclaw and four on the hind paws. The claws are retractable. An adult paw print is round 10cm long.
While cougars are nearly as large as jaguars, they are not as powerfully built. However, after the lion, tiger and panther, the cougar is next largest in size. It lacks the specialised larynx and hyoid of the 'Panthera' genus and cannot roar. Their vocalisations are more akin to those of domestic cats with growling, purring, hissing and chirps. They also scream.
'Concolor' suggests plain colouring which is true of the cougar but still allows for a great variation. The typical colour is tawny but ranges from silver-grey to reddish. There may be lighter patches on the undersurfaces. Cubs are spotted when born with blue eyes and ringed tails.
The hind legs are proportionately the largest in the cat family, allowing for huge leaps of 5.4 metres vertically although this is exceptional. Horizontal distances are reported to be, from a standing position, between 6 and 12 metres. The cougar can sprint at 55 to 72 km/h but only for short distances. It is a very capable climber and can swim if it needs to.
The cougar will generally avoid humans if possible and attacks are rare. It is a solitary animal and has great adaptability. Cougars gain most of their prey by a stalk-and-ambush method. A powerful leap gets it to the animal's back and a powerful bite to the neck dispatches it. Generally the cougar does not touch carrion. A large ungulate will last a cougar two weeks unless she is raising maturing cubs. Prey may be dragged some distance, covered with brush and fed on over a period of days.
Cougars are crepuscular, most active around dawn and dusk. Territories are marked with urine, faeces and scrape markings.
The cougar is a generalist predator. It is an obligate carnivore so needs meat to survive. The various deer species provide the bulk of its food. Bighorn sheep, wild horses and domestic livestock are also taken depending on what is available in the area where the animal is based. The Florida panther (Puma concolor couguar) however shows a preference for feral pigs and armadillos. Cougars 'learn' prey recognition which is why bighorn sheep are not targeted in some areas but are in others.
In Central and Southern America, small to medium-sized mammals become more important. Mice, porcupine, hare, capybara, birds and small reptiles may all be targeted.
Grey wolves and cougars may compete for 'kills'. Although an individual cougar is more powerful than a grey wolf, it is usually no match for the pack structure of the wolf. Wolves will kill a female cougar and her cubs and female cougars are often not comfortable in the same territory as the wolf.
Females mature at 1 ½ to 3 years of age and have a litter of 5 to 6 (typically 2 or 3) cubs every 2-3 years. The gestation period is about 91 days.
Cubs are born blind and are weaned sometime after 3 months of age. As they grow, the mother takes them out first to visit the kill site then to hunt small prey. Caves and other alcoves are used as dens. Females do all the rearing and are fiercely protective, even taking on grizzly bears if need be.
At around two years, juveniles move off to establish their own territories. At this point there may be deaths due to conflicts with other cougars. Life expectancy in the wild is 8 to 10 years but as long as 20 years in captivity.
The cougar is not always the dominant prey species in an area. Competitors for similar types of food include the jaguar, grey wolf, grizzly and American black bear. Disability, disease (including feline immunodeficiency virus), starvation, accidents and hunting all impact on the cougar.
Populations of cougars have, for the most part, diminished. In eastern North America it was extirpated by the beginning of the 20th century, bar a small number in Florida. This group is regarded as critically endangered. All other subspecies are listed by the IUCN as 'of least concern'.
I have in my library a hard-cover book written by Zane Grey. It is so old that it has no dates of any description. On the cover is an oval containing an illustration of a charging African lion. However the story is of a hunting party of rangers who hunt cougars with hounds. Once they tree the cougar, one of the men climb the tree (or a nearby tree) and lasso the cougar. These are collared, chained to trees at the camp, fed and watered until they have five or six which they then pack out on pack-horses.
Were it not for photos of the chained cougars I might be disinclined to believe the story but it seems true. The area is the north rim of the Grand Canyon – maybe in Utah? Not being American, my geographical knowledge of the area isn't good. As the story goes, the group are trying to clean the cougars out of the area by catching them alive and packing them out. I must read it again one day!