Everything About Cougars and How They Are Related to Pumas and Mountain Lions

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Updated on: Educator Review By: Michelle Connolly

“Although cougars are of a solitary nature in the wild, those who have the spirit of the cougar with them are called to become leaders in some way.”

― Eileen Anglin

Cats are not just the pets we keep at home and feed boiled egg yolks and yoghurt. In fact, the over 60 cat breeds found worldwide are all variants of just one cat species, called Felis catus, which humans domesticated so long ago. That is true. All those breeds were all once just one species, but thanks to hundreds of years of artificial breeding, now we have those differently-looking small cats.

Those 60-something cat breeds aside, the original Felis catus, in itself, is just one of 41 extant species of small, medium-sized and big cats. Besides the size differences, other clear features set these species apart. The most common of them is the fur pattern, which, by the way, is the most diverse among all land carnivores. Some cats are striped (you know which one I mean, do you not?), some are spotted, and others are just plain.

However, that does not necessarily mean cats do not look similar. Some species look so painfully the same that it takes a tremendous deal of focus and gazing to tell them apart. 

In a previous article, we unveiled a few differences between the two similarly-looking predators, jaguars and leopards. In a near-future article, God willing, we will compare the lynx and the caracal. Yet, for today, we are focusing on another big cat that is not spotted or striped, nor can it be confused with another cat. Yet, it just happens to be as majestic as all the other cats we discussed so far.

So please bring along a big cup of hot cocoa, and let’s learn some fantastic facts about cougars.

1. Name 

The first thing that confuses many about the cougar is its name. This cat was listed by the Guinness World Records as the one with the maximum number of names. So let’s explore some of these names and their meanings.


The cougar was initially called çuçuarana, which means ‘deer-like’ in the Tupi language that was spoken long ago in Brazil. As you can see, this big cat has nothing in common with the deer except for their beige fur coat. So the name was pretty inexpressive.

Over many years, çuçuarana was changed to cupuacu and then to cougar, which was adopted by the English language sometime in the 17th century.

Felis concolor

Instead of cougar, scientists have given this very cat the Latin name Felis concolor. Felis means cat, and concolor means uniform colour. This makes a lot of sense, given that the animal’s fur colour is one hue of cream.


As we will see later in the article, the cougar belongs to a subfamily of cats that purr and meow but cannot roar because their unique neck bone structures do not allow them to. This subfamily comprises 12 genera to which 34 cat species belong. The domestic cat belongs to one of these 12 genera, while the cougar, the big cat we have in hand, is the only species in the genus Puma.

The name Puma was derived from the Quechua language, which the Incas, the South American Indians, used to speak. So in South America, the only cat that belongs to the Puma genus is also referred to as puma.

Mountain lion

When the Spanish conquered South America sometime in the 16th century, they came across the cougar, which the South Americans call puma, and recognised how similar it looked to small cats. So they called it gato monte, which translates to ‘cat of the mountain’. This name later developed to the mountain lion.

Interestingly, the name ‘mountain lion’ is not used in South America but in North America, precisely, Canada and western United States.

So according to the context or location, one can determine what to call this big creamy cat. For this article’s sake, we will stick with cougar.

2. Habitat

Scientists believe that cats originated in Asia some 11 million years ago and then scattered all around the world. Nowadays, cheetahs are native to Africa, while tigers and lions live in Africa and Asia. Jaguars originated in Central and South America, while snow leopards live in the frozen high mountains of Asia.

Cougars are found in North and South America. Scientists believe that their Asian ancestors crossed the Bering Land Bridge, which separated Asia from the Americas, around eight million years ago and settled in North America. Four million years later, some of them migrated to South America.

Nowadays, cougars are found in western North America and most of South America. They used to live in the eastern areas of North America too, but they were completely eradicated, primarily by humans.

Much more specifically, cougars survive in all kinds of habitats. They live in open areas that do not have much vegetation. They live in lowlands and up to 5,800 metres high in the mountains. They also live in deserts and forests and can be found near rivers and lakes.

Interestingly, cougars are the only big cat with such an extensive habitat range. No other cat species can live in so many different places. That is why cougars are highly adaptable.

3. Subspecies

As mentioned, cougars settled in North America around eight million years ago. Four million years after that, they decided it was time to move out and explore further areas, so they went to South America.

Over those millions of years, the individuals who stayed in the north and those that migrated to the south experienced different environmental changes. So their bodies evolved differently. The northern cougars now have some features not found in the southern ones, and vice versa.

In 2005, scientists classified six different cougar subspecies living in North and South America. But in 2017, this classification was modified into only two subspecies, North and South American cougars, or mountain lions and pumas, respectively.

One main difference between the two subspecies is that mountain lions are larger and more affected by the weather than pumas. They have a silver fur coat, while the pumas’ fur is reddish.

These colours are the result of the weather of each continent. Since mountain lions live in the western areas of North America, their habitat is more like cool mountains, which cause that silver colour. But those living in most of South America occupy the tropical forests where it is too hot. That is why their coat is more reddish.

In addition, mountain lions have longer and thicker fur which keeps them warm in their cold habitat. On the contrary, the South American habitat is already warm, so pumas typically have short fur.

The diet of both subspecies also varies widely based on what is available in their habitat. Mountain lions feed on deer and brown bear cubs. In South America, and since their habitat is way broader, pumas feed on many different things, such as birds, rodents, frogs, cattle, goats, deer, sloths, and tapirs.

As we mentioned, most of the mountain lion population was eradicated from eastern North America and is now more abundant in the west. However, only a small population still survives in Florida, in the southeastern United States. These mountain lions were not called mountain lions for some reason, nor were they called pumas. Instead, they were given the name ‘Florida panthers’, and no one knows why!

4. Size

When it comes to size, cougars are the fifth in line after tigers, lions, jaguars and leopards. They are the second largest big cat in the Americas after jaguars, which are also native to these two continents.

As a rule of thumb, the smallest cougar individuals are found near the equator. The further from the equator they get, precisely to the north, the larger they become. That said, here are the average measurements of cougars living in both continents.

Males are typically larger than females. With the tail included, they have a total body length of 2.4 metres, while females measure 2.05 metres on average. Males also weigh somewhere between 53 and 72 kilograms, while females’ weight ranges between 34 and 48 kilograms. Both males and females stand 75 centimetres at the shoulders.

If we apply the rule of thumb we mentioned a paragraph ago, individuals measuring more than that typically live further from the equator than those measuring below that average.

5. Behaviour 

By nature, all big and small cats are solitary, and cougars are no different. However, some intensive studying of cougars in North America has revealed a surprising behaviour. 

Those animals sometimes get social by sharing their food with other individuals.

For instance, researchers stalked a male for a while and found that he was visiting his wife after she had given birth. Probably as a way to welcome him at home, she offered him her kill to eat.

In addition, some cougar males were found to get together and form small groups led by a dominant male, who is usually the strongest of them all. Members of such social groups live together in one territory and share their kills. They are more often in contact with one another but rarely with other males from outside their group.

This is pretty surprising because, as we will see in a bit, males sometimes aggressively fight and may even kill one another.

That aside, cougars do not really like to have any contact with humans. They were even seen running away when they encountered people.


Speaking of territory, cougars are, yes, territorial. They like to define a particular area as their home range, which is typically where they look for food. When food is abundant, home ranges are small. But when there is not much food around, and cougars have to go further away to find it, their territories become larger.

For some reason, males’ territories are usually larger than females’ and both may sometimes overlap. That means some males may cross the boundaries of a female’s home range and look for food there.

In contrast, no male’s territory overlaps with another male’s. If one male finds another inside his territory, he quickly produces some vocalisations, basically aggressive threats, telling the other individual to back off. If it does not, they get into a fight. Sometimes these fights cause serious injuries which may lead to death.


Cougars are nocturnal animals. They are typically active from sunset to sunrise. This is when they usually go out to forage. On some rare occasions, they may hunt during daylight.

As we mentioned, cougars eat a variety of prey thanks to the wide range of their habitat. In the world of science, they are called generalist predators. Their ability to adapt to most weather conditions also widens the variety of food they consume.

So how do cougars take down prey?

Well, like all their cousins, cougars sneak around their prey silently and secretly. When they get the closest to it, they explosively jump and catch it with the help of their sharp claws and canine teeth.

Do you know what else helps cougars while hunting? Their super skills. Thanks to their strong muscular physique, cougars can run at 64 to 80 km/h over short distances. They can also leap 5.5 metres up in the air at a time.

Like all other big cats, cougars are apex predators. They feed on other animals, but no other animal feeds on them. Yet, that does not necessarily mean cougars do not have conflicts with other apex predators living in the same habitat.

For instance, in North America, cougars share the same habitat with the grizzly bear, the American black bear, and wolves. Bears, for instance, are much larger than cougars. Wolves also hunt in packs while cougars hunt individually. So to avoid fights, cougars sometimes give up their kill to these predators.

6. Reproduction

Male cougars are mature enough to mate and start a family at two and three years old. However, females can breed any time between a year and a half old and three years old.

Unlike many big cats, cougars can mate at any time of the year, but breeding most commonly happens during winter. When a female is ready to have a family, she makes different calls to attract males. Mating is another occasion when these cats get together.

Females stay pregnant for 90 to 103 days. During this period, they usually look for remote, safe, and predator-free areas to give birth and keep their cubs in. Caves are the best places for females to occupy as their dens.

Then females give birth to one and up to six cubs in one litter, with two cubs being the average number of newborns. At birth, cubs are two weary. They are blind, but also furred, and they depend entirely on their mothers, who take full responsibility for bringing them up.

For the next two years, mothers take full care of their cubs. They nurse them for three months. After that, they introduce them to solid food, basically the kills they bring home. Such an activity is known as weaning. The older cubs get, the bolder they become in accompanying their mothers on hunts. At six months old, cubs begin to hunt small prey on their own.

That said, cubs do not leave their mothers once they master hunting skills. In total, they stay with their mothers for one or two years. This is typically when they, themselves, are mature and ready to mate. This is also when their mothers can mate again. Interestingly, a female must make sure her offspring have already moved out before she mates again. If they have not, their mother’s new husband may, in fact, kill them.

Cougars typically live between eight and 13 years in the wild and nine years on average. But in captivity, they live longer than that, sometimes up to 20 years.


So here we get to the end of today’s journey, where we explored important facts about another big cat, the cougar.

At first, we demonstrated some of the many names this big cat has, where it got each of them, and how related they are to its taxonomic classification. Then, we explored the cougar’s habitat, which extends into western North and South America.

After that, we learned a few things about the cougar subspecies, demonstrated a few physical differences between them, and explained how they were caused. Among these different features is the size, which gets smaller or larger based on the distance from the equator.

Finally, we finished our article with some facts about the behaviour of these cats. Despite their solitary nature, cougars do show a level of sociability under some circumstances, such as the breeding. We also discussed their territorial nature, how they hunt, and what they do when they encounter other predators.

We hope you liked reading this article just like we loved writing it for you. Now that you know some facts about cougars, you may want to explore some differences between two of their cousins, jaguars and leopards. Or you can go straight ahead and learn about the king of the jungle, the lion.

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