Mountain lions are large, slender cats. The fur is short, coarse, and ranges from yellowish brown to grayish brown on the upper parts and a paler, almost buffy, color on the belly. The throat and chest are whitish. Mountain lions have a pinkish nose with a black border that extends to the lips. The muzzle stripes, the area behind ears, and the tip of tail are black. The eyes of adult animals are grayish brown to golden. The tail is long, cylindrical, and about one-third of total body length. The limbs are short and muscular. The feet are broad, with four digits on hind feet and five on forefeet. The retractile claws are sharp and curved. The skull is broad and short, with a high, arched forehead and massive teeth modified for grabbing and slicing prey.
Males are larger than females. Head and body length ranges from 1020 to 1540 mm in males and 860 to 1310 mm in females. Tail length ranges from 680 to 960 mm in males and 630 to 790 mm in females. Males weigh from 36 to 120 kg and females from 29 to 64 kg.
Historically, mountain lions had the largest distribution of all American terrestrial mammals. They ranged from coast to coast in North America, and from southern Argentina and Chile, in South America, to southeastern Alaska. Extermination efforts, hunting pressure, and habitat destruction have isolated populations of mountain lions to relatively mountainous, unpopulated areas throughout much of their range. Populations in eastern North America were entirely exterminated, except for a small population of Florida panthers (Puma concolor coryi). In recent years populations have begun to expand into areas of human habitation, especially in the western United States. Mountain lions are now fairly common in suburban areas of California and have recently been sighted as far east as urban Kansas City, Missouri, where several have been hit by cars. Mountain lion sightings in eastern North America, outside of southern Florida, are still more likely to be escaped or abandoned "pet" mountain lions or other large cats.
Mountain lions use a wide variety of habitats including montane coniferous forests, lowland tropical forests, grassland, dry brush country, swamps, and any areas with adequate cover and prey. Dense vegetation, caves, and rocky crevices provide shelter.
Males maintain territories that overlap with those of several females. They attempt to dominate matings with those females.
Mountain lions begin mating when they have established their own territory. Females make sounds and rub themselves against objects to advertise to local males that they are ready to mate.
Mating occurs throughout the year, but is concentrated from December to March in northern parts of their range. Females are pregnant for 82 to 96 days and give birth to 1 to 6 kittens, with an average of 3. Kittens weigh 226 to 453 grams at birth, their eyes and ears are closed and they have no teeth. At 10 days old they open their eyes, their ears unfold, their first teeth erupt, and they begin to play with their litter mates. They nurse for about 40 days. Mother and cubs remain together for as long as 26 months, though the average is 15 months. Males generally move farther, once they've left their mother, than do females. Males are ready to breed at about 3 years of age and females at 2 1/2 years.
Mother mountain lions care for and nurse their young until they are about a year old. The young are born helpless and are protected by the mother in a sheltered area until they are big enough to roam and begin to learn and practice hunting skills.
Mountain lions may live up to 18 to 20 years in the wild. They can live slightly longer in captivity.
Mountain lions are solitary animals, except during brief mating times and when females have young. Depending on the abundance of prey and other resources in an area, there may be 1 mountain lion in anywhere from 13 to 85 square kilometers. Mountain lions in cold climates may have to migrate between summer and winter ranges. They are capable of moving over large distances. Mountain lions mark their territories by depositing urine or fecal materials by areas called "scrapes". Mountain lions are mainly nocturnal. Male mountain lions are found together immediately after leaving their mother (usually brother pairs), but rarely as adults.
Home ranges of females range from 26 to 350 square kilometers, with an average of 140 square kilometers. Female home ranges may overlap extensively. Male home ranges do not overlap with those of other males and typically encompass the home ranges of two females. They range in size from 140 to 760 square kilometers, with an average of 280 square kilometers.
Mountain lions rely mainly on vision, smell, and hearing. They use low-pitched hisses, growls, purrs, yowls, and screams in different circumstances. Loud, chirping whistles by young serves to call the mother. Touch is important in social bonding between mother and young. Scent marking is important in advertising territory boundaries and willingness to mate.
Mountain lions are carnivores. Their main prey throughout their range are different species of deer and their relatives, including moose, elk, white-tailed deer, mule deer, and caribou in North America. They will also eat smaller creatures like squirrels, muskrat, porcupine, beaver, raccoon, striped skunk, coyote, bobcats, other mountain lions, rabbits, opossums, birds, and even snails and fish. They may also prey on domestic livestock, including poultry, calves, sheep, goats, and pigs. Mountain lions have a distinctive manner of hunting larger prey. The lion quietly stalks the prey animals, then leaps at close range onto their back and breaks the animal's neck with a powerful bite below the base of the skull. Yearly food consumption is between 860 to 1,300 kg of large prey animals, about 48 deer-sized animals per lion per year. Mountain lions store large prey, dragging it up to 350 meters from the place of capture and burying it under leaves and debris. They return nightly to feed.
Mountain lions are top predators. They may be preyed on by other mountain lions, wolves, or bear when they are young or ill.
Mountain lions are important as top predators in the ecosystems in which they live. They are instrumental in controlling populations of large ungulates.
Although mountain lions are secretive and generally avoid humans, they sometimes attack humans. Attacks are usually on small adults and children traveling alone during dawn, dusk, or at night. It is thought that mountain lions mistake these humans for their ungulate prey. Mountain lions are also considered threats to domestic stock. These threats are sometimes exaggerated. It is helpful to learn more about mountain lion behavior in order to avoid encounters.
Mountain lions have considerable trophy value and are hunted for sport. They are also captured to be put in zoos. Mountain lions are important to humans in their role as top predators, helping to control populations of deer and their relatives.
Some populations of mountain lions are considered extinct, including the populations of the midwest and eastern United States. Florida panthers and the mountain lions of Costa Rica, Panama, and Nicaragua are considered endangered. Most populations in western North America are stable, except in areas where human populations are rapidly growing.
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