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12 Unique Characteristics of Mountain Lions

Mountain lions have the greatest geographical distribution of any extant mammal in the Americas. They’re found all the way from the Canadian Yukon to The Strait of Magellan. Mountain lions have adopted characteristics (physical and behavioral features) that allow them to thrive in many habitat types.

Usually, they’re found in mountainous or rocky terrain, but they also live near forests, prairies, swamps, and deserts. Below are 12 characteristics you should definitely know.

12 Characteristics of Mountain Lions

Mountain lion resting
Mountain lion resting | image by Chiara Coetzee via Flickr

1. Powerful Hind Legs

Proportionately to their size, mountain lions have the largest hind legs of the cat family (Felidae). Their hind legs are larger and more muscular than their two front legs.

Those hind legs give them a lot of power; they can jump up to a whopping 18 vertical feet and 40 horizontal feet. Most of the time, they save these large energy outputs for either catching prey or escaping from other predators.

2. Their Average Body Sizes And Weights Follow Bergmann’s Rule

Mountain Lion
Mountain Lion | Image by 3031830 from Pixabay

Mountain lion average body size varies greatly depending on where the individual is found. They are smaller near the equator than they are near the poles. This characteristic can be explained by the concept of Bergmann’s Rule.

The Rule (though there are exceptions) is that warm-blooded animals living in colder regions have an advantage in reducing surface area to volume ratio so they can reduce heat loss. Typical male weight ranges are between 115 and 220 lbs., with an average of 150 lbs. Female weight ranges are between 64 and 141 lbs., with an average of 121 lbs.

3. Their Tails Are Quite Long

Mountain lions’ tails can be more than a third of their total length. Adult males can be up to 9 feet long, nose to tail, and females can be around 7 feet long. Of these lengths, the tail typically accounts for 25 to 37 in.

4. They Cannot Roar

Unlike many other large cats, they aren’t able to roar. Mountain lion noises are similar to those of house cats; they purr, hiss, and growl. The mountain lion larynx is ossified, and has folds that allow it to make purring sounds while inhaling and exhaling.

5. Mountain Lions Are Solitary

Mountain lions are solitary and very territorial. Their home ranges vary from small (30 miles for females) to large (125 square miles for males), and they mark their territories using pheromones and physical signs, such as tree scratches. Ranges can overlap, and home ranges of males generally overlap ranges of several females.

6. Mountain Lion Kittens Stay With Their Mothers For Up To 18 months

Female cats only have a three-month gestation period and generally have 3 kittens per litter. The kittens need a lot of care when they are born and are taught how to hunt by their mothers. They will spend up to 18 months with their mothers.

7. Mountain Lion Kittens Look Quite Different From Adults

Mountain lion kitten on a log
Mountain lion kitten on a log | image by Kurt Thomas Hunt via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Kittens are born with spots and blue eyes. The spots give way to their adult coloration after 6-9 months, and their eyes turn yellow within about 16 months.

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8. They Live Longer In Captivity

The mountain lion is an animal that has a better life expectancy in the lower-stress circumstances of captivity, 21 years, than in harsher wild conditions, at 10 years. A thirteen-year-old wild mountain lion is considered quite old.

9. Mountain Lions Are Fantastic Swimmers

They swim very well, and will cross channels between islands, especially to follow prey animal migrations. Their spines are very flexible, which allows them to be agile in the water. It’s a surprising sight to witness, as most people don’t expect to see cats, of their own accord, in bodies of water.

10. Mountain Lions Are Most Active During Crepuscular Hours

Hikers are cautioned from spending too much time near areas that mountain lions frequent during dawn and dusk (crepuscular) hours. They often hunt during these times, and thus humans are advised to keep an eye on thick brush, rocky overhangs, or cliffs above them if they spend time near mountain lion territory at these times of the day.

11. They Have Fantastic Vision

Mountain lion fierce
Mountain lion fierce | image by Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area via Flickr

Mountain lions have large eyes, and their retinas have more rods than cones. Biologically, this explains why they have excellent night vision.

While they can’t see in complete darkness, they can perceive objects in significantly lower light than people can. They are able to detect even very slight movements.

12. They Are Ambush Predators

Mountain lions lie in wait for prey or silently stalk their targets. They’re known for pouncing from behind or from the side and delivering a quick, lethal bite to the spinal cord of their prey.

A few quick facts about mountain lions…

Here are a few additional facts about mountain lions.

1. Mountain lions have many names

Mountain lions are known by more than 40 different common names, and that’s just in English! These names include catamount (cat of the mountains), cougar, puma, panther and mountain screamer. As of 2022, it actually was the mammal with the most different names in English, at 40.

2. A mountain lion’s fur is tan-brown, red or gray with a black-tipped tail

Puma concolor means “cat of one color.” A mountain lion’s fur is usually a shade of tan-brown, red or gray. However, it does have a white underbelly and the tips of its tail and backs of its ears are both black. It also has some black markings on its face.

3. Mountain lions are an umbrella species

The mountain lion is an “umbrella species.” This means their conservation depends on preserving large expanses of habitat, since each mountain lion has such a substantially-sized territory. Areas that are protected specifically for mountain lions are also protected for plants and animals within that habitat.