The Eastern Cougar was at one time a top of the line predator with a range stretching through northeastern United States and eastern Canada. Cougars prefer habitat with ample coverage for stalking and ambushing, along with sustainable populations of prey (Laundré, 2013). Prey consists of just about anything that can be caught, including porcupines, but the food of choice is white-tailed deer for this eastern predator. Development and expansion by humans led to an increase in contact with cougars, with the big cats getting the raw end of the deal. Conflicts with farmers, and depredation by hunters rapidly diminished cougar populations east of the Mississippi. To date, cougar signs are scarce, even non-existent in some regions. In 2011 the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared the subspecies extinct, although many cougar watch groups insist that there are hidden pockets of cougars in the remaining patches of protected wilderness.
Cougars are solitary creatures, and their territories can cover hundreds of square kilometers (Grigione et al., 2002). Today, only a fraction of the lands once inhabited by cougars is still wilderness. This reduction in population and hunting grounds for Puma concolor couguar has had far reaching effects on other species. White-tailed deer, a favorite meal of cougars, have reproduced to astounding numbers with the elimination of natural predators. They have become a nuisance, causing car accidents and heavy damage to trees and shrubs through over foraging.
By habit, cougars hunt using stealth and surprise. Their native territories are abundant in trees and rocky outcroppings, as well as heavy underbrush from which to spring ambushes. Cougars cache larger prey that they cannot finish in one meal. They will remain in the vicinity until the stash is finished. In the event of a conflict with other top predators over a kill, the cougar will generally avoid confrontation and leave, even if it was their kill (Kortello et al., 2007). A cougar’s home turf will fluctuate depending on the seasonal movements of prey populations (Grigione, et al., 2002).
Female cougars give birth to young year round, although studies have indicated that the months of July-September tend to have higher birth rates. Cubs become independent after approximately 16 months (Laundré & Hernández, 2007). Young males will often travel vast distances, likely contributing to genetic diversity amongst more stable populations. Genetically North American cougars have been shown to be very similar, to the point where some studies have suggested that native North American cougars lack subspecies differentiation (Culver, et al., 2000). North American cougars are genetically distinct from their South American counterparts, and this difference has been a useful tool in identifying whether or not a particular animal is clearly an escaped captive import, or a wild native. This particular question is a large part of the mystery surrounding the current existence of eastern cougars. There is evidence of cougars inhabiting the eastern regions of the US and Canada, but whether they are natives, or immigrants, or escaped captives remains a topic of hot debate.
- Grigione, M., Beier, P., Hopkins, R., Neal, D., Padley, W., Schonewald, C. and M. Johnson. 2002. Ecological and allometric determinants of home-range size for mountain lions (Puma concolor). Animal Conservation. 5, 317-324.
- Laundré, J. and L. Hernández. 2007. Do female pumas (Puma concolor) exhibit a birth pulse? Journal of Mammalogy. 88, 1300-1304.
- Laundré, J. 2013. The feasibility of the north-eastern USA supporting the return of the cougar Puma concolor. Oryx. 47, 96-104.
- Culver, M., Johnson, W., Pecon-Slattery, J., and S. O'Brien. 2000. Genomic ancestry of the American puma (Puma concolor). Journal of Heredity. 91, 186-197.
- Kortello, A., Hurd, T., and D. Murray. 2007. Interactions between cougars (Puma concolor) and gray wolves (Canis lupus) in Banff National Park, Alberta. Ecoscience. 14, 214-222.
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