Puma, Puma concolor
Pumas, commonly referred to as cougar, mountain lion and panther, are plain colored cats, hence the Latin name concolor meaning one color. This color varies in individuals from silvery gray to tawny to reddish. Coloration can be very different even between siblings. Faint horizontal stripes may occur on the upper forelegs, remnants of the light spotting that covers the young. Melanism is widely reported in the tropics but not in North America; albinism is infrequent.
The puma is an exceptionally successful generalist predator, and its adaptability likely helped it survive the late Pleistocene extinctions that impacted other large North American felids. Although a large cat, pumas are more closely related to the small cats. Because they lack the elastic hyoid apparatus and enlarged vocal folds of the cats in the Panthera genus, pumas often make a purring noise. Pumas cannot roar, but are capable of making a variety of other vocalizations. Both sexes have a distinctive call resembling a human woman’s scream that is most likely associated with courtship.
Pumas are the second largest cat in the New World, with adult males weighing 145 to 107 pounds (72 to 53 kg) and females weighing 69 to 97 pounds (34 to 48 kg); exceptional males weigh up to 243 pounds (120 kg). Pumas are larger toward the extreme southern or northern parts of their range (away from the equator) and have large feet, proportionately the longest hind feet of the cat family.
Pumas live in a diverse array of habitats, from arid desert to tropical rain forest to cold coniferous forest. Several studies suggest that habitat with dense undergrowth is preferred, but pumas can also live in very open habitats that contain only a minimum of vegetative cover. Pumas are occasionally reported from areas of intensive agricultural cultivation, although such animals are likely to be transient.
Historically pumas were found from the boreal forests of northern Canada to the tip of South America. Today, they still have a broad latitudinal range encompassing a diverse array of habitats, including areas extending from sea level to 19,000 ft (5,800 m) in the Andes. Although they have been essentially eliminated from eastern North America, pumas are now found in areas such as the Great Basin Desert in western North America that have been colonized by deer which were previously outside their historical range. In Central and South America, pumas still occur through much of their historical range. Although pumas have been documented in a remote forested area of east-central New Brunswick, DNA tests of road-killed individuals and other material from that province and adjacent states demonstrated these cats to have been derived from South American origin and presumably originated as escapees or intentionally released individuals. A growing number of confirmed and unconfirmed reports and sightings in eastern North America are usually attributed to escaped animals or misidentified species: dogs, deer, bobcats, etc.; reports of melanistic individuals in North America are attributed to otters, bears and dogs.
In North America, the principal prey is large ungulates, particularly deer, making up 68% of the puma diet. Other prey in that region includes pronghorn, elk, bighorn sheep, moose and rabbits. In Central and South America, and particularly in the tropics, small- to medium-sized prey appear more important, including birds, capybara, rabbits and other small mammals as well as ungulates (deer and guanaco). The low rate of predation on larger prey such as tapirs may be linked to inter-specific competition with jaguars.
Like most cats, pumas are solitary predators with large territories; those of males are larger than and overlap several of those of adjacent females’. Females can breed year-round, but in the northern part of their range, most young are born between April and September. In Chile, births are reported from February to June. Estrus lasts 8 days, and following a gestation of 92 days, a litter of 2 to 3 spotted young are born, 2/3 of which survive their first year in non-hunted populations. Juveniles are independent between 12 to 18 months old. In the wild, pumas in non-hunted populations probably live 8 to 10 years, but may survive as long as 18 years. In captivity, extremely old animals live up to 23 years.
Pumas are primarily nocturnal and most active at dusk and dawn. Males make scrapes in prominent locations, especially along the boundaries of their home ranges. Large kills are often covered with scraped-over vegetation and dirt, and pumas often remain in the vicinity, returning frequently to feed until the entire carcass is consumed.
Threats to Survival:
Across the Americas, ranchers are likely to continue to view pumas as a threat to their livestock, and to attempt to eliminate them. For example, in Arizona and Brazil, calves less than a year old are vulnerable to predation, and in Chile, pumas are significant predators of sheep. Pumas are vulnerable because they return to their kills that can be poisoned. They are also vulnerable because they take to trees when hunted with dogs, after which they are easily shot.
Pumas are listed as Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the eastern portions of the United States. Introduced and now free-living pumas in portions of Florida outside of the range of the Florida subspecies, Puma concolor coryi (commonly referred to as Florida panther), are considered Threatened due to similarity of appearance with the Florida subspecies. Eastern and Florida pumas, as well as populations in Eastern and Central America, are protected by Appendix I under CITES; all other populations are protected in international commerce by Appendix II regulations. Hunting is prohibited in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, French Guiana, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Suriname, Venezuela and Uruguay. Hunting is regulated in Canada, Mexico, Peru and the western United States.
A regional studbook and Species Survival Plan (SSP) for pumas held in North America is maintained within the TAG. The target population supported by the AZA Felid TAG is 130 animals. The private sector and non-participating zoos hold many more. Pumas are only supported by the SSP for educational purposes and for geographical themes within a zoo. Breeding is strongly discouraged, and member institutions needing pumas are likely to obtain their animals as orphans or donation from the public.
Puma SSP Coordinator & Studbook Keeper
Michelle Schireman, Oregon Zoo
The Florida panther has been a target of intensive conservation efforts due to the population
having been reduced to a minimum level even as it lives in a human-dominated area. The complexity, difficulties and cost of this action demonstrate the challenges conservation officials face once large carnivore populations reach seriously depleted levels, in this case dipping to 30 to 50 individuals confined to fragmented patches of habitat. One subpopulation in the Everglades National Park became extinct in 1991. Genetic analysis has since then demonstrated that other South Florida populations carry genes from South American pumas released in the late 1950s. This could be advantageous, however, as undiluted populations have a number of physiological impairments caused by excessive inbreeding over time. Several attempts at releasing captive born and wild-caught pumas of both Florida and Texas origin have met with good results.
Historically, 32 subspecies of puma had been described, but more recent genetic comparisons of pumas from populations in North, Central and South America strongly suggest that many of these subspecies, particularly those in Central and North America, are not valid, this wide-ranging species having far fewer subspecies than originally described decades or longer ago. The more recent research suggested six wild subspecies total based on unique ranges, a group of similar genetic characteristics and a unique natural history relative to other subspecies. In the United States and Canada, this research suggested a single subspecies, a finding which could have a significant impact on federal and state conservation programs.