The Puma (Puma concolor) is a large, graceful cat belonging to the felidae family. Pumas are also called Cougars, Panthers and Mountain Lions. Pumas are solitary cats and have the largest ranges of all wild terrestrial mammals in the Western Hemisphere. Their range extends from Yukon, Canada to the Southern Andes in South America.
Although Pumas are large cats, they are not classed in the ‘big cat’ category. Instead, they are one of the largest cats of the ‘small cat’ category even though some can match the size of a leopard.
Due to the fact that the majority of Pumas are found in more mountainous regions, they have a thick coat of fur which helps to keep them warm in the freezing winters. Depending on the subspecies and location, the Puma’s fur varies in colour from brown-yellow to grey-red, with those individuals found in colder regions being more grey and those found in warmer areas having more of a red tinge to their fur. The Puma is an incredibly powerful predator and has muscular hind legs that are slightly longer and stronger than the front, which makes them more agile when leaping. The also have enormous paws which are very large in comparison to their body size. The Puma has large wide-set eyes which not only enable it to see what is ahead of it, but they can also see for some distance around them as well. They have pointed ears and their acute hearing allows them to detect prey even when it is too dark for them to see.
The Puma is found in the mountains throughout South and North America where it inhabits rocky crags and pastures slightly lower down than the slopes than the grazing herbivores. Although these seem to be the Puma’s preferred conditions they are extremely adaptable animals that can be found in a variety of habitats including forests, tropical jungle, grasslands and even in more arid desert regions. However, with expanding Human settlements and land clearance for agriculture, the Puma is being pushed into smaller pockets of it’s historically vast range, retreating into more hostile mountain environments that are further away from people. It is widely believed however that the Puma’s adaptability has been vital in ensuring that it doesn’t disappear from the wild forever.
The Puma is a solitary animal with the exception of the time cubs spend with their mother. Pumas patrol large home ranges in search of food which varies from 80 square miles in the summer to 40 in the winter, when the falling snow restricts access to a number of mountain areas. Some regions can become so hostile that Pumas migrate from the mountain forests and go down into the valleys to escape the worst of the cold. Not only can Pumas easily adapt to different surroundings but they are also able to hunt effectively during the day or night. Their strong and muscular hind legs and large paws mean that the Puma can move about amongst the rocks more quickly and with greater agility. Pumas are known to make a variety of different sounds particularly when warning another Puma away from their territory and during the mating season when they are looking for a mate.
A successful generalist predator, the cougar will eat any animal it can catch, from insects to large ungulates (over 500 kg). Like all cats, it is an obligate carnivore, meaning it needs to feed exclusively on meat to survive. The mean weight of vertebrate prey (MWVP) that pumas attack increases with the puma’s body weight; in general, MWVP is lower in areas closer to the equator. Its most important prey species are various deer species, particularly in North America; mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk and even bull mooseare taken. Other species such as the bighorn and Dall’s sheep, horse, fallow deer, caribou, mountain goat, coyote, pronghorn, and domestic livestock such as cattle and sheep are also primary food bases in many areas. A survey of North America research found 68% of prey items were ungulates, especially deer. Only the Florida panther showed variation, often preferring feral hogs and armadillos.
Investigation in Yellowstone National Park showed that elk, followed by mule deer, were the cougar’s primary targets; the prey base is shared with the park’s gray wolves, with which the cougar competes for resources. Another study on winter kills (November–April) in Alberta showed that ungulates accounted for greater than 99% of the cougar diet. Learned, individual prey recognition was observed, as some cougars rarely killed bighorn sheep, while others relied heavily on the species.
The Puma is one of the most dominant predators throughout much of their natural environment and are therefore rarely preyed upon by other species. It has been known however, for Pumas that are vulnerable due to sickness or injury to be preyed upon by other large predators including Bears and Wolves, and even other Pumas. The biggest threat to the Puma however is people who have not only hunted this large Cat (mainly for it’s fur) but the Puma has also been subjected to drastic habitat loss throughout much of it’s natural range, mainly due to expanding Human settlements and deforestation for agriculture. In some areas they are also hunted by ranch owners who blame Pumas for their loss of livestock.
The grace and power of the cougar have been widely admired in the cultures of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The Inca city of Cusco is reported to have been designed in the shape of a cougar, and the animal also gave its name to both Inca regions and people. The Moche people represented the puma often in their ceramics. The sky and thunder god of the Inca, Viracocha, has been associated with the animal.
In North America, mythological descriptions of the cougar have appeared in the stories of the Hocąk language (“Ho-Chunk” or “Winnebago”) of Wisconsin and Illinois and theCheyenne, amongst others. To the Apache and Walapai of Arizona, the wail of the cougar was a harbinger of death. The Algonquins and Ojibwe believe that the cougar lived in the underworld and was wicked, whereas it was a sacred animal among the Cherokee.
One of the most obvious reasons as to why this large and powerful feline is not classified as one of the world’s ‘big’ Cats is that Pumas are not able to roar. This is something distinctive to the ‘big’ Cat family as no other feline is able to do so. The powerful hind legs of the Puma are so muscular that they not only allow them to pounce on and secure their prey, but they are also able to leap enormous distances of up to 20ft.