NORTH AMERICA'S GREAT CAT
|North America's largest cat (outside of some small jaguar populations) is the cougar. Also called mountain lion or puma, it is one of the major predators of it's range, along with bears and wolves. Cougars range from the southernmost part of South America to areas in Alaska and the Yukon. Populations seem to be increasing along eastern North America as well, based on several sightings by locals. Cougars are highly adaptable animals, and can live in a variety of environments ranging from swamps to forests and mountains.|
The genus and species name mean 'cat of one color', describing the almost single colored coat. Coat colors range from tan to dark brown, depending on the region. Coat thickness also varies. Kittens are born with spotted coats as are lion cubs. They also have the distinguishing black face marks and tail tip. As the young cougar matures, it will lose it's spots for an adult coat. Cougars range in size from 5 to 8 feet long, and from about 60 to 225 lbs. Males are almost twice as large as females.
Cougars are among the most athletic of cats. Their slightly larger hind legs make the excellent jumpers and bounders. A cougar can bound across ground in leaps from 28 to an amazing 39 feet! This ability to bound over snow makes the cougar very adapt at chasing all kind of prey, including the bounding snowshoe hare, one of it's favorite prey in certain regions.
|Agility makes the cougar especially at home in mountainous regions and forests, where it effortlessly leaps among peaks and branches. Cougars can jump as high as 6 feet into a tree on up a ledge, and then move across branches and rocks with amazing balance and agility. Even young kittens seem to show this energy. Although they are unable to leap and bound, they are highly curious and venture out as much as they can before their mother returns to their den.|
FELIS OR PANTHERA?
Although they are classified with the big cats, cougars have the genus name Felis rather that the common big cat genus Panthera. The cougar seems to be between the big and little cats, and the classification is based on two factors.
One is the ability to roar. Cougars are unable to roar like lions, tigers, or leopards. This is due to throat structure. What gives cats like lions the ability to roar is a thick vocal cord made of cartilage in their throats. This cord is able to vibrate to produce the loud roaring sound. (Humans have a similar but thinner vocal cord, which enable a wide range of sounds needed for speech.) Cougars, however, have a structure similar to little cats. Instead of a cord of cartilage, cougars have a series of tightly connected bones that are unable to produce loud sounds. Cheetahs and snow leopards have a similar structure and are therefore also unable to roar.
|Snow leopards are classified as big cats because of the second factor: head shape. Most big cats like lions and tigers have broad, long head shapes. Cougars have a narrower shorter head, like little cats such as the bobcat or lynx. I like to think of cougars as somewhere in between, with the size and strength of a big cat as well as the shape and agility of a smaller cat.|
Sources:1. "Big cats Kingdom of Might" Tom Brakefield. Voyageur Press, Stillwater MN. 1993.
COUGARS AND HUMANS
Like all big cats, the cougar is a symbol of leadership. In some Native American tribes, it is a totem symbolizing balanced leadership. One source describes a cougar totem that is associated with a controlled use of power; the ability to successfully lead without force. Cougar totems were described as avoiding abuse of power; to be nurturing as a mother with kittens while also powerful as an adult on the hunt.
Sources: 1. Medicine Cards. Jamie Sams & David Carson, Bera & Company. Santa Fe , NM. 1988.
I find it interesting that cougars would be symbolized as leaders rather than wolves or bears. Perhaps it is the agility and grace of cougars that sets them apart from the other predators. They may symbolize a single leader who has the ability and grace to lead, as well as the kindness to carefully watch over and tend to the needs of others as a mother cougar with kittens.
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