The Puma or Mountain Lion is a rather large cat, though it is classified as a smaller cat by scientists. Like smaller cats, pumas cannot roar though they can muster a very startling snarl or a piercing cry. In some places, these cats are also called cougars, catamounts, painted cats, panthers or painters. Scientists call them Puma concolor.
According to an old Mayan legend, all the animals of the jungle once looked the same until the gods offered to make them look different. The jaguar asked, "Let me be spangled with stars," and it was so. He was pleased with his gift and showed it to the puma. Not to be outdone, the puma asked the gods that he be as splendid as the jaguar, and it was so. Pleased with himself the puma went out to hunt. Unfortunately, he fell and rolled in the dust which clung to his still-wet design. For this foolishness he and all pumas thereafter went through life the color of the earth.
Where do pumas live?
Pumas are widely spread in North, Central and South America. They can be seen in a variety of habitats including deserts, swamps and forests from northern British Columbia all the way down to the southern end of the Andes mountain range. Pumas were driven out of the eastern half of North America by human pressure; a small population remains in Florida and occasionally there are puma sightings in other eastern states.
What do pumas look like?
Most pumas are a light brown color, with black-tipped ears and tail. The pumas that live closest to the Equator are the smallest, and increase in size in populations closer to the poles. (This sort of size increase is seen in tigers too. The smallest ones live in the tropics, the largest Siberian tigers live far to the north where winters are very cold.) The endangered Florida Panther is the smallest of the Pumas. Like many other cats, they can retract their sharp claws into their paws, which have four toes. The largest male pumas can be as big as eight feet (2.4 meters) long, and females can be as large as seven feet (2.1 meters). The males weigh in a bit less than the average adult human at about 150 pounds (70 kilograms), with females weighing even less at 75 pounds (35 kilograms) or less.
Although pumas do not have a bright pattern, there are distinct black "tearstains" on their upper lips and a vivid white fur around the mouth that emphasizes facial expressions. Although cougars cannot roar, when they growl their "business end" looks rather intimidating, helped along by the markings.
What do pumas eat, and how do they catch their prey?
Pumas mostly eat large animals like deer. Because the puma can run very fast, as much as 45 mph (72.42 km/h), and because they can jump 30 ft (10 m) forward from a standing position, they can very easily catch slower animals. Pumas can jump 18 ft (6 m) straight up and can climb onto rocks and up trees to hunt. Their bite is very strong, much stronger than a strong dog's bite, and their largest teeth are about twice the size of a large dog's teeth.
Pumas have a very powerful hunting instinct, and have sometimes been known to chase and catch humans on bicycles. A favorite food for pumas is the deer, but they will also eat smaller animals. In areas where pumas and people live close together, pumas have hunted dogs and cats for food, but they usually do not hunt people for food. If you are around a puma, it is better not to run fast or to ride a bicycle, because their instinct is to chase, catch and kill running animals.
On January 8, 2004 a puma killed and partly ate a mountain biker in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, in Orange County, California, but attacks on humans are rare.
Stay safe around pumas
These are good safety ideas for areas where pumas live:
- Never hike alone, Pumas are more likely to attack people who are alone than in a group.
- If you see a puma, do not run, because their instinct might make them chase you. Instead, stand and face the animal, and look into its eyes. Stand tall, raise your arms, and make yourself look large. The puma will think you are a giant and run away. If it comes toward you, scare it away by shouting, waving your arms, or throwing things.
- Do not turn away from the puma; do not crouch down or do anything that would make you seem like an animal. If you or someone in your group is attacked, fight back by throwing stones, hitting or kicking. Pumas have been chased away by using rocks, sticks, garden tools and bare hands. The best place to hit a puma is on the nose.
- Watch around you when in an area where pumas might be. Like other cats, they like to spring out from a hiding place and attack their prey from behind.
- Don't go hiking with your pet in areas with pumas, because any animal (even a dog) can make a puma want to chase and kill it, because of the "chase reflex" that pumas have. Also, the puma might be attracted to your pet's food.
- Female pumas call to potential mates with a piercing cry that sounds much like a high pitched scream. Every year some panicked people call the police to report an "attack" in progress.