Ghost cat. Catamount. Puma. Painter. Panther. Mountain lion. Cougar.
The many names describing the nation's largest cat convey the mystery surrounding this solitary hunter.
Credit: Robert Savannah
Cougars, once the most widely distributed mammal in the Western Hemisphere, have been eliminated in most of their native habitat. Only cougars living on wild lands in the western U.S. and Canada occur in enough numbers to maintain breeding populations.
Western cougar information provides biologists with information for the cats that once lived east of the Mississippi. Eastern cougars, which have remained on the endangered species list since 1973, are now believed by Service biologists to be extinct. They historically lived in a variety of habitats from Michigan, southern Ontario, eastern Canada and Maine south to South Carolina and west across Tennessee.
Adult cougars' fur is a uniform red-brown or gray-brown. Cougars have long, slender bodies with very long tails and broad, round heads with erect, rounded ears. Adult cats average from 6 (females) to 8 feet (males) long, including their tail. Males, at around 140 pounds, are larger than females at about 105 pounds.
Cougars have no natural enemies, only humans. Eastern cougars' primary prey was white-tailed deer, but they also hunted eastern elk (now extinct), porcupines and other smaller mammals. Cougars can swim, climb trees and leap horizontally and vertically. They usually stalk and ambush their prey, leaping as far as 20 feet onto a deer's back and killing an animal with one bite to the neck.
One cougar consumes a deer every week to 10 days, or more frequently if a female is feeding cubs. Cougars are mostly lone animals, except for mothers raising cubs and the time a pair spends together while mating. Males may occupy a range of more than 25 square miles and females between 5 and 20 square miles. Both females and males defend home territories. Cougars live an average of eight years.
Early settlers perceived the cougar as a danger to livestock and humans and a competitor for wild game. The eastern cougar was gone from much of the East by the late 1800s, after losing much of its habitat due to deforestation and being hunted and trapped relentlessly until they were extirpated throughout most of their range.
Though forests and deer have returned, conflicting land uses, fragmented habitat, roads, diseases and parasites from domestic animals, and expanding human populations will likely prevent cougars from returning to most of their former range. Habitat able to support small populations may still occur in some of the larger undeveloped tracts of forest in the East.
USFWS National Digital Library, Market Hunting of Cougars
Cougars in the Western Hemisphere were originally classified into 32 subspecies. Recent genetic research instead identifies six groups, five of which are in Central or South America.
Some cougar biologists believe that this information suggests that all North American cougars are one subspecies. But a complete taxonomic evaluation including morphology, ecology and biogeography has not been completed.
An isolated population, like the Florida panther, can develop some genetic differences through past genetic bottlenecks and inbreeding within a small population.
The Florida panther is the only breeding population of cougar east of the Mississippi.
Confirmed cougar sightings have occurred recently in the wild in the East, but no current physical evidence documents the continued existence of a population of wild eastern cougars.
The cougars examined in the Northeast in the past 70 years are likely released or escaped captives. Some cats had a South American genetic profile, and some may be animals from western populations.
Confirmed cougar sightings have increased in the Midwest and Great Lakes states. Some believe that a small residual population of wild cougars persisted in the Canadian Maritime Provinces, where there has also been recent confirmed evidence of cougars.
Learn more about the eastern cougar at http://www.fws.gov/northeast/ecougar.