- Common Name:
- Cougar (Mountain Lion)
- Scientific Name:
- Puma concolor
- Head and body: 3.25 to 5.25 feet; tail: 23.5 to 33.5 inches
- 136 pounds
- IUCN Red List Status:
- Least concern
- Current Population Trend:
The cougar is a cat of many names: Puma, mountain lion, and catamount, among others.
This adaptable predator has the widest range of any land mammal in the Western Hemisphere, and can be found in many habitats throughout the Americas, from Florida swamps to Canadian forests. In some areas, such as heavily urbanized southern California, cougars are increasingly sharing space with people.
Cougars are the world’s fourth largest wildcat after lions, tigers, and jaguars. They are stocky with large hind legs and a long tail—about a third of their length—which provides balance. Their strong back legs enable them to leap around 40 feet horizontally, or 18 feet vertically in a single jump.
Their scientific name—Puma concolor, which means “of one color” in Latin—refers to their evenly colored coat: usually a solid orange, yellow, tan, rusty brown, or gray with a white belly. In rare cases, cougars can be white, but no cases of black, or melanistic, cougars have ever been documented.
Cougars hunt at dawn and dusk. They usually prey on deer, although these opportunistic predators also eat coyotes, moose, wild sheep, birds, and rodents. They even kill feral donkeys, an invasive species in California’s Death Valley National Park.
The cats silently stalk their prey, then pounce and kill them with a fatal bite to the back of the head or neck. When dealing with a large carcass, a cougar will eat as much as it can before hiding the rest to come back to later.
Harmful encounters with people are rare: Between 1924 and 2018, 74 cougar attacks—including 11 fatalities—were documented in 10 U.S. states.
Male cougars maintain large territories that overlap with several smaller territories of their mates. About three months after mating, a female gives birth to three or four kittens in a secluded den, where she stays for 10 days. Babies are born with camouflaged, spotted coats that fade into a solid color as they grow.
After six weeks, the family will leave the den, and kittens learn to hunt from their mother. Cougars are ready to set out on their own at around 18 months old. Males often strike out farther from their mother to avoid the threats of a rival male; one was recorded traveling 1,800 miles in search of a new home.
Arguably the world’s most famous cougar was an animal called P-22, whose father was P-001—the first puma to be collared by the National Park Service. Born in the Santa Monica Mountains, P-22 left his birthplace to find his own territory and crossed some of the world’s busiest freeways to reach L.A.’s Griffith Park, part of the Hollywood Hills, where he lived for 10 years. (Read: A cougar ready for his close-up.)
P-22 was compassionately euthanized in December 2022 when he was caught for an evaluation, which showed he was underweight, had organ failure, and was likely hit by a car.
Threats to survival
Cougars once roamed nearly all of the United States, but by the early 1900s, they were mostly hunted to extinction in the Midwest and eastern U.S. The Florida panther—a subspecies only found in Florida—survived, though today fewer than 200 individuals remain in the wild.
Overall, cougar populations are stable, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List categorizes them as a species of least concern.
Yet throughout their wide range, the felines are threatened by poisonings from various substances, vehicle collisions, retaliatory killings, and hunting. (Learn more about cougars, also called ghost cats.)
Habitat fragmentation is also a pressing problem. Unlike P-22, most cougars can’t cross sprawling freeways, and this lack of connectivity causes low genetic diversity and inbreeding.
That’s why, in southern California, the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing will help various wildlife species safely cross U.S. Highway 101.
— Society for Conservation Biology
It took photographer Steve Winter 15 months to capture his iconic photo of P-22 against the Hollywood Hills.
— National Geographic
Cougars are classified taxonomically as small cats because they purr but cannot roar.
— San Diego Zoo