From: Morgan Erickson-Davis, MONGABAY.COM, More from this Affiliate
Published January 18, 2011 09:32 AM

American cougars on the decline: 'We’re running against the clock,' says big cat expert

It holds the Guinness World Record for having the most names of any animal on the planet, with 40 in English alone. It's also the widest-ranging native land animal in the Americas, yet is declining throughout much of its range. Mongabay talks with big cat expert Dr. Howard Quigley about the status and research implications of the elusive, enigmatic, and unique cougar.


It is thought that the forebear of the cougar migrated from Asia into North America over the Bering land bridge approximately 8 million years ago, where it evolved into the different cat lineages present today. Cougars subsequently invaded South America three million years ago when the isthmus of Panama formed to connect the two continents. Genetic studies have shown that today's North American populations are all very similar, suggesting a population bottleneck contemporaneous with the megafauna extinction of approximately 10,000 years ago during which large North American mammals such as Smilodon went extinct. Researchers believe that during this time cougars were largely or entirely extirpated from the whole of the continent, with today's populations refounded by cougars from South American.

Although it can weigh up to 220 pounds, making it the second largest felid in the Americas (after the jaguar), the cougar is actually more related to smaller cat species such as ocelots and lynx than it is to lions and tigers. Originally, it was even grouped in the same genus as the domestic cat (Felis), but in 1993 was given its own genus, Puma, which it shares with its closest living relative, the jaguarundi.

Interestingly, even though they are in separate subfamilies, cougars and leopards are capable of hybridizing. In the 1890s and early 1900s, an animal park in Germany bred a female cougar with a male leopard while a Berlin zoo bred a male puma to a female leopard. The resulting "pumapards" had the long body of a cougar with the rosettes of a leopard on a tawny or grey coat. Most died while young, and those that did reach adulthood grew to be only half the size of their parents due to genetic dwarfism.

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