Grazing amongst dewy grass on the outskirts of a mountainside evergreen forest, a pair of white-tailed deer abruptly halts its early morning meal, momentarily suspicious of a sound in the nearby shrubbery. Without moving, the two ungulates conduct a short survey of the dimly lit landscape. Seeing no definitive danger in the immediate surrounding brush, they warily resume their eating. The comfortably cool breeze blowing across the Rockies helps to make dawn a prime feeding time during the summer months in southern Canada - both for the deer, and the nearby Cougar creeping down the forested mountain face, hungry for her favorite flavor of flesh.
The rustling of leaves only delays the imminent, inevitable kill. As soon as the Cougar's potential targets reprioritize their food over self-defense, the stalking predator stealthfully leaves her position behind a bush, slipping into the shadows of some large scattered rocks. Poised to pounce, the large feline shifts her weight back to a powerful pair of long, muscular hind limbs - capable of propelling her as high as 5.4 meters (18 feet) and as far as 12 meters (40 feet).
Moments later, the ambush is on. A blur of tawny fur agilely accelerates down the precipitous slope - surpassing speeds of 60 kilometers per hour (38 miles per hour) - as the deer immediately abandon their food to flee in opposite directions. Isolating the smaller and slower doe proves easy for an astute assassin, and the ensuing chase endures for no more than a minute. Leveraging the high ground, the Cougar launches onto the back of her prey, deploying ten retractable claws - five on each large, padded forepaw - and a sharp set of teeth into the neck for an almost instantaneous kill. After indulging in a few fleshy bites, the conservative cat drags her carcass back toward the dense underbrush, concealing it with foliage. Remembering the spot, she now has food for at least the next week.
From the snowy mountain altitudes in the Canadian Yukon, down into the forests and deserts of the western United States, throughout Latin America's tropical jungles, and across the entire South American continent, Cougars thrive in nearly every type of habitat. For those subspecies in North America, a thick coat of coarse fur provides warmth in mountainous forests and desert canyons ripe with ungulates - notably elk, deer, and bighorn sheep - which provide more than 1,000 kilograms of meat each year and comprise nearly 70% of an annual diet. Beneath the Tropic of Cancer, the cosmopolitan cat prefers to prey on more abundant small mammals, such as coatis and capybaras. As a result of the species' ability to adapt, Cougars boast the broadest natural distribution of any terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere with the exception of humans.
Despite the species' expansive range, all adults share uniform physical features: a pink nose, white muzzle, and pale yellow eyes all bordered with black fur, round erect ears, and a long tail extending from a lean and limber body - ending in a distinctive black tip. Males outweigh females - an average of 75 kilograms (165 pounds) compared to 45 kilograms (100 pounds) - and both genders measure somewhere between 1.5 and 2.75 meters (5-9 feet) from nose to tail tip, making Cougars some of the most imposing and dominant predators in the Americas. Technically speaking, however, the fourth-heaviest feline on Earth - behind only the lion, tiger, and jaguar - does not qualify as a "big cat." Scientists have instead classified Cougars in the Felinae subfamily, meaning they bear a closer relation to the common domestic cat than the larger, wilder species they more directly resemble. This distinction comes from the cat's inability to roar, which requires a specialized larynx and hyoid apparatus. Instead, Cougars can only emit hisses, growls, purrs, and screams.
While the backdrop from day to day may vary from country to country, the species' life cycle and behavioral traits also remain unvarying. As solitary and reclusive creatures, Cougars establish their own territorial ranges, covering between 150 and 1000 square kilometers (58-386 square miles) for males - and half that area for females - marking boundaries with scrape marks, urine, and feces. Males and females only interact with intentions of reproducing, which can transpire at any point throughout the year. Within days of mating, males return to their stomping grounds, never to play any role in the parenting process.
Following a gestation period of three months, females give birth to a live litter of blind, blue-eyed, spotted kittens, usually in the protective confines of a cave or alcove. Until they are weaned three months later, these infants are entirely dependent on their mother for nurture and nourishment. By the age of six months, however, Cougar kittens are already practicing their hunting techniques as keen students observing their mother's motions in a stalk-and-ambush kill. Despite this rapid ascendance from utter haplessness to the top of the food chain, for a variety of reasons, an average of just one kitten will survive its first year - an unfortunate statistic given the average litter size usually numbers only two or three.
For all the similarities shared across starkly different habitats, however, the species bears one notable discrepancy throughout the hemisphere: a name. In the Guinness Book of World Records, Puma concolor holds the honor for having more nicknames than any other animal on the planet - with more than 40 from the English language alone. While Cougar remains one of the most widely used designations, other popular nicknames include Puma, Mountain Lion, Catamount, Mountain Cat, and Painter - a tribute to the resemblance between the creature's tail and a paintbrush.
In total, an estimated 50,000 breeding adults survive in the wild - and despite an overall declining trend, populations in the United States are predicted to be rebounding considering the species' recent attempts to recolonize historical territories in Michigan and Maine. Occasional hunting - justified by the threat posed to livestock - and habitat loss remain the most significant factors contributing to the Cougar's decline, but the creature remains safe from extinction and will undoubtedly prowl the Americas for many millennia to come.
Anywhere in North America and South America with dense underbrush - forests, canyons, escarpments
Ungulates, livestock, small mammals, birds
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In Peru, the Incan city of Cusco was said to be designed in the shape of a Cougar.
The only population of Cougars in the eastern United States to survive European colonization lives in Florida, where it is most commonly known as the Florida Panther and is classified as an endangered species.
Cougars first migrated to South America during the Great American Interchange 3 million years ago when the Isthmus of Panama was forged as a connecting tract of land between the two continents.
In most territories, Cougars are not considered the apex predator. Bears and wolves will habitually steal kills from the large felines in North America, while jaguars outrank their close relatives in South American forests.