Cougars are the largest of the small cats. They are placed in the subfamily Felinae, although their bulk characteristics are similar to those of the big cats in the subfamily Pantherinae. The sexes look alike, though male lions are 30 to 40 percent larger than females. Though sizes vary greatly throughout the cat’s geographic range, a typical adult male will weigh 110 to 180 pounds and the female 80 to 130 pounds. Exceptional individuals have exceeded 200 pounds, but this is rare. Adult males will measure 6 to 8 feet from nose to tail tip and females 5 to 7 feet. The most recognizable feature of the American lion is its long and heavy tail, which measures almost two-thirds the length of its head and body.
Cougars have large paws and proportionally the largest hind legs in the cat family. This physique allows it great leaping and short-sprint ability. The cougar is able to leap as high as 5.5 m (18 ft) in one bound, and as far as 40 to 45 ft (12 to 13.5 m) horizontally. The cougar’s top running speed ranges between 64 and 80 km/h (40 and 50 mph), but is best adapted for short, powerful sprints rather than long chases. It is adept at climbing, which allows it to evade canine competitors. Although it is not strongly associated with water, it can swim.
The cougar is an ambush predator and pursues a wide variety of prey. Primary food sources are ungulates, which include deer, such as mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, and moose, other ungulates it preys on are bighorn sheep, as well as domestic cattle,horses and sheep, particularly in the northern part of its range. It will also hunt species as small as insects and rodents. This cat prefers habitats with dense underbrush and rocky areas for stalking, but can also live in open areas.
Like almost all cats, the cougar is a solitary animal. Only mothers and kittens live in groups, with adults meeting only to mate. It is secretive and crepuscular, being most active around dawn and dusk. The cougar is territorial and survives at low population densities. Individual territory sizes depend on terrain, vegetation, and abundance of prey. While large, it is not always the apex predator in its range, yielding to the jaguar, gray wolf, American black bear, and grizzly bear. It is reclusive and mostly avoids people. Fatal attacks on humans are rare, but in North America have been trending upward in recent years as more people enter their territory.
A cougar’s killing bite is applied to the back of the neck, head, or throat and they inflict puncture marks with their claws usually seen on the sides and underside of the prey, sometimes also shredding the prey as they hold on. Coyotes also typically bite the throat region but do not inflict the claw marks and farmers will normally see the signature zig-zag pattern that coyotes create as they feed on the prey whereas cougars typically drag in a straight line. The work of a cougar is generally clean, differing greatly from the indiscriminate mutilation by coyotes and feral dogs. The size of the tooth puncture marks also helps distinguish kills made by cougars from those made by smaller predators.
Remedial hunting appears to have the paradoxical effect of increased livestock predation and complaints of human-puma conflicts. In a 2013 study the most important predictor of puma problems were remedial hunting of puma the previous year. Each additional puma on the landscape increased predation and human-puma complaints by 5% but each additional animal killed on the landscape the previous year increased complaints by 50%, an order of magnitude higher.
This effect is attributed to the fact that inexperienced younger male pumas are most likely to approach human developments, whereas remedial hunting removes older pumas who have learned to avoid people in their established territories. Remedial hunting enables younger males to enter the former territories of the older animals.