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Mountain Lion

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by Brendan Bane

About 8 million years ago, a short-legged prehistoric cat from the genus Pseuaelurus crossed the Bering Land Bridge to arrive in North America. Over the course of the next few millions of years, that ancestor of modern cats played migratory ping-pong between continents. Species diverged to produce genera like Lynx, Leopardus and Puma, the latter of which includes what we know today as the North American mountain lion: Puma concolor couguar.

Of all terrestrial mammals, mountain lions—also known as pumas, cougars, panthers, catamounts and mountain cats—have the greatest geographical range. Their distribution spans from Northern Canada to the Southern Andes. Though mountain lions still patrol many diverse landscapes today, they were once prevalent—they used to roam the Americas coast to coast (perhaps that’s why they hold the Guinness record for the animal with the most names).

But indiscriminate hunting quelled many mountain lion populations after European colonization. Some groups are recovering, while others may have already vanished.

At 35 inches to the shoulder, an adult mountain lion stands about as tall as a large Great Dane. They can reach nine feet long and sometimes weigh over 200 pounds. Males are larger than females. Both genders are colored similarly, with beige to brown coats and light rusty red shading. Kittens are born with blue eyes and spotted fur, which fade, respectively, to greenish yellow and roughly uniform coats.

As their majestic appearance suggests, these cats are very powerful. They've been documented jumping over fences 22 feet tall and leaping 30 feet horizontally (that's just a few feet short of an average school bus). They do not roar—that feat is reserved for true lions (genus Panthera). Instead, pumas purr and hiss, just like domestic cats, to which they are closely related.

Solitary animals patrol vast territories (up to 200 square miles for males, 80 for females). Female territories sometimes overlap, but male territories never do. Cats establish boundaries by scent-marking and scratching trees. When people develop mountain lion habitats by building houses and roads, those signals can easily be lost or destroyed.

Mountain lions sometimes wander into urban environments. It’s important to note that, while these animals are dangerous, attacks are rare. The last attack anywhere near Santa Cruz occurred over 100 years ago and involved a rabid cat.

Mountain lions are fierce hunters. Adult males thrive on about 6000 calories per day, which works out to approximately one deer per week. The Santa Cruz Mountains are rich in black-tailed deer, which comprise 60-80% of the puma’s diet. Mountain lions are somewhat opportunistic, though, and will consume myriad creatures, from insects to elks.

As ambush predators, mountain lions prefer to wait for an unfortunate deer to cross their path. Crouched behind an outcrop, the puma will leap toward the unsuspecting deer’s head. With five retractable claws outstretching from its massive paws, the puma clasps the deer’s throat and sinks its sharp teeth into the base of the neck. The kill is complete once the lion crushes the deer’s throat.

The mountain lion then drags its prize into the shade of a tree. There, the cat buries the body beneath twigs and leaf litter. The cover helps to keep the meat concealed and cool, thus slowing decay. The animal returns to feed from its catch for the next 1-5 days.

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