Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A remote trail camera captures a cougar near Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James, Nat Geo Image Collection

Cougar or not? Why we think we see big cats in our backyards.

Many Americans mistakenly believe they see dangerous animals—so some scientists are taking to Twitter to correct these misperceptions.

“Mom, don’t hit the cougar!” Faren Marée Ramos shouted as her mother pulled into their driveway at Ramos’s house in Nolensville, Tennessee, in June.

Ramos quickly snapped some blurry photos of a tawny wildcat striding through the woods, wondering if what she saw was a bobcat or even a cougar, a species long ago wiped out from Tennessee. Lively discussion ensued when she posted the photos to a private Facebook group, so Ramos sent her pictures to Michelle LaRue, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Minnesota and executive director of the Cougar Network, a group that researches the North American big cats.

She had come to the right place.

LaRue invented the game Cougar or Not, which takes place every Friday on her Twitter account. Using the hashtag #cougarornot, LaRue posts a photo someone has sent her of a feline of indiscriminate origin, asking her followers to guess the species in the photo. Later in the day, LaRue divulges the answer.

“Most photos are bobcats, followed by house cats, and then the occasional dog or deer,” says LaRue, who can usually tell if the animal is a cougar by its size, which is three to five feet long, with a tail between 24 and 34 inches. In her five years hosting #cougarornot, only a few photos have turned out to be a cougar, including this recent submission below. (Ramos’s photo proved inconclusive.)

That in itself is not surprising, since cougars were hunted nearly to extinction throughout most of the United States by the early 20th century, with only a few populations hanging on in the American West and Florida, which is home to the endangered Florida panther. In the 1960s, new hunting regulations and better management practices, coupled with an explosion in prey such as white-tailed deer, allowed the big cat to rebound, and there are now likely 30,000 cougars living throughout the American West.

Because cougars are still, for most Americans, a mysterious and exotic creature, LaRue’s goal with Cougar or Not is to familiarize the public with them—especially because they may well become a more common part of the landscape in the future. As with many carnivores, cougars are figuring out how to live in more urban areas—a famous male, P22, lives exclusively in the Hollywood Hills—making human encounters with them inevitable.

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Fletcher Moore took this #cougarornot photograph of what turned out to be a lynx in Alaska's Denali National Park.

“By normalizing the fact that cougars are a healthy part of the ecosystem, and how rare it is to actually see them, folks’ fear of encountering them might diminish a little,” LaRue says.

Seeing danger everywhere

There’s a reason the public often jumps to the most unlikely conclusion when they spot a feline darting through the forest.

“People may be quick to think they’re seeing a cougar because cougars are associated with danger,” says Toby Wise, postdoctoral fellow in computational psychiatry at University College in London.

In other words, erring on the side of caution is not a bad survival technique.

In a recent study in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, Wise and colleagues discovered that people will give their attention to things they perceive as potentially dangerous, whether they know much about the subject in question or not. (Learn more about the science of fear.)

In the study, 65 participants were shown two different images on a screen, one of which was consistently associated with the person receiving a mild electric shock, while the other image's connection to an electric shock varied. By watching the subjects’ eye movements, researchers learned that they paid closer attention to the image definitely linked to the electric shock—showing that people will pay attention to something they already perceive as dangerous.

These results may be explained by interpretation bias, or a tendency to perceive something as being better or worse than it really is. Someone with a negative interpretation bias, for example, is “interpreting what they’re seeing as a cougar because they tend to interpret things as being threatening if they’re not,” Wise notes.

Conversely if a person has a positive information bias and see a cougar in what’s really a tabby, they might find the thought of seeing a cougar exciting, he says.

Ramos falls into that camp. “There shouldn’t be fear,” she says of seeing a wildcat. “It should be a beautiful moment, and you should cherish it.” (Read about the intriguing social lives of cougars.)

Venomous or not?

A similar tendency to identify an animal as dangerous occurs among snakes, says David Steen, a herpetologist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

“There’s no question that people think they see venomous snakes more often than they actually do, because many folks frequently assume just about any snake they see is venomous,” Steen says via email. (See National Geographic’s tips for photographing wildlife.)

For instance, the cottonmouth, or water moccasin—a semi-aquatic venomous snake that ranges throughout the southeastern U.S. into mid-Texas—is usually confused with watersnakes, a group of non-venomous snakes in the genus Nerodia that also live throughout U.S. waterways.

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“Just about any watersnake is going to be misidentified as a cottonmouth,” says Steen, who, like LaRue, regularly takes to Twitter to correct such misperceptions about snakes, and has just published a book on the topic, Secrets of Snakes: Science beyond the Myths. (Learn whether we’re born fearing snakes.)

Like cottonmouths, copperheads are often misidentified because of their notoriety in U.S. culture. But there’s another reason, he adds.

“People misidentify these animals because natural history is not prioritized in our schools and our society,” Steen says. “That’s a shame.”