What Is a Mountain Lion?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The mountain lion, also called a cougar or puma, is the fourth largest cat in the world. It has shown ability to adapt to a range of climates and habitats, and the mountain lion can be found from Canada to South America. It is the second heaviest cat in the Americas, preceded by the jaguar only in size and weight.

Teaching farmers how to better protect their livestock can help to save to lives of predatory mountain lions.
Teaching farmers how to better protect their livestock can help to save to lives of predatory mountain lions.

Even though the cougar is a large cat, it is not considered one of the “big cats,” like lions and tigers because it doesn’t roar. Instead it is considered the largest of the small cats, which include leopards, jaguars and cheetahs. Really, the cheetah and leopard are similar in size, but the cheetah usually weighs less.

In size, the mountain lion male is impressive, and can reach when measured from nose to tail about eight feet (2.44 m) in length. The male can weigh between 115-160 pounds (52.16-72.57 kg) but females are generally much lighter, with an average weight of between 75-105 pounds (34.02-47.63kg). All subspecies of cougar can interbreed, and have small size or appearance differentials. For example, a panther with a habitat near the equator tends to be smallest, and cougars far north or farther south are much larger.

The coat of the mountain lion is beautiful, a tawny yellow, with tips of brown, red or silver. The Abyssinian domesticated cat attempts to replicate this beautiful caramel coat. Cougar young often have brown spots, but a more even colored coat usually replaces these by the time the cat is about a year old. When unmolested, the puma has an average life span of 25 years in captivity and about 20 years in the wild. Adult pumas have no natural predators except humans.

The mountain lion is solitary, coming together as couples only to mate. Sexual maturity is reached at about the age of three. Cougars have a nine month pregnancy, and can have as many as six kittens in a litter. Kittens stay with mothers until they are about two years old.

Panthers are opportunistic feeders, primarily carnivorous. They will eat large insects when necessary, but mostly eat rodents, other small cats, deer and of course livestock and pets. This brings them into conflict with people who have encroached on their habitats.

Mountain lions that attack livestock are often shot, and unfortunately, there have also been incidences of attacks on humans. Some protection exists for the cougar, since numbers were steadily decreasing, and this has helped the population. In some areas, though, the population increase has lead to greater contact with humans and livestock animals, leading often to more mountain lion deaths.

In general, attacks on people are rare since cougars tend to be quite shy of humans. Should you encounter a cougar, it is a mistake to play dead or to run. Instead, experts suggest making noises, and raising the arms above the head to simulate being taller. Usually the cat will be scared off by this behavior.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments



I think hunting Mountain Lion can be a good thing, but it is important to follow legal procedures which ensure the survival of species and environmental views which foster hunting as a helpful tactic for the species itself, as well as human safety. Poaching is often a fast road to endangered species.


I would consider being able to overcome a Mountain Lion as a cause for great boasting and trophy. They would make a great rug and a great story. I used to worry about being attacked by one, but now I think that Mountain Lion hunting would be an exhilarating experience.


In New Hampshire, I grew up in the mountains, being sometimes worried about Mountain Lion attacks. I had heard that a person dies from them every year, being pounced upon suddenly from a tree. I did not consider the fact that the Mountain Lions of the type in New Hampshire were nearly endangered.


Mountain lions are different than lions and are part of a different genus. Lions are part of genus panthera, sharing an immediate family with tigers and leopards. Mountain lions are in genus puma, which is smaller and more "bendable," living in trees more often. Pumas are smaller than genus panthera.

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