Chapter one examines what a cougar is from its physical characteristics like size, weight, and appearance to its biological makeup including subspecies and adaptations.
The cougar. Cougars are also known as the mountain lion, puma, panther, or catamount in various parts of the world. This majestic big cat was highly valued by the early native population and was named Klandagi, meaning “Lord of the Forest” by the Cherokee. They prefer to avoid people and are masters in the art of camouflage.
This solitary animal is highly elusive and is one of the least aggressive of all of the world’s large cats. In Canada, most cougars live in Alberta and British Columbia, but have been found in Yukon, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. The cougar easily adapts to various environments and is found all the way from the Canadian Yukon to Chilean Patagonia, can live in deserts and tropical rainforests, and from sea level to 4,500 metres in elevation.
The cougar is the largest of the three wild cats in Canada followed by the lynx and bobcat¹. It is known to be very elusive and a master of camouflage. As a solitary animal, cougars prefer to avoid each other, as well as people, and are considered one of the least aggressive of the world’s wild cats².
There are four subspecies of cougar in Canada³:
Its head is short and round with a muscular jaw, wide mouth opening, and long teeth designed to kill prey. Their body composition and structure allows them to jump 18 feet vertically from sitting and 45 feet horizontally⁴. Although cougars are best built for short sprints, they can run up to 64 to 80km/h or 40 to 50 mph⁵ and are known to roam up to 80 km in one day⁶.
Unlike other big cats, cougars lack the specialized larynx and hyoid bone that other big cats have, which prevents them from roaring. Instead, cougars can purr and emit screams or high-pitched birdlike chirps which is often used by cougar mothers to attract the attention of their cubs.
Cougars are muscular and compact with a round, short head and prominent whiskers. Their coat is short and ranges in colour from reddish, grey, or tawny to dark brown with black markings on the ears, face, and tip of the tail. Males have a black spot approximately 10-14 cm (4-5”) below their anus and females have a much smaller, less visible black spot approximately 2 - 3 cm (1”) below their anus¹. Cougar kittens are spotted at birth, but lose their spots within the first year.
A cougar cub weighs anywhere from 400 – 500 g (0.9 - 1.1 lbs) at birth¹.
At maturity, a cougar’s adult weight can range from 29 to 120 kg (64 - 264 lbs)².
On average, male cougars weigh approximately 71 kg (156 lbs) and females approximately 41 kg (90 lbs).
The cougar stands 60-90 cm (24 - 35”) tall from its shoulder to the ground and ranges in length from 1.5 to 2.75 m (4’ 11” - 9’), with the adult male averaging 2.4 m (7’10”) and the females averaging 2.05 m (6’9”)².
A cougar tail is exceptionally long compared to other wild cats such as bobcats or lynx. Specifically, a cougar tail length is one-third of its total length and has a range of 2.5 - 3 ft (63 - 95 cm) while a bobcat has a tail length of 0.3 ft (10 cm)2.
Cougars are adaptable and can survive in various environments ranging from deserts to tropical forests and mountains to swamps. Cougars have excellent vision, especially at night, which is essential when hunting. They have sensitive hearing, but a weak sense of smell. Their short muzzles make their bite more powerful. Together, their vision, hearing, and powerful jaws make the cougar an incredible ambush hunter¹.
Cougars prefer to avoid human activity, but in areas where the human population is in proximity to them, they tend to be active mainly at night, again demonstrating their desire to avoid people². Surprisingly, cougars are also adept swimmers and have been spotted swimming across the inlets on the Gulf Islands in British Columbia.
This is the end of our Cougar series in the Knowledge Base. We hope you feel more informed, and better prepared if you were to encounter a cougar.