Pumas—commonly referred to as cougars, mountain lions, and panthers—are plain-colored cats, hence the Latin name concolor meaning one color. This color varies in individuals from silvery gray to tawny to reddish. Coloration can be very different even among siblings. Faint horizontal stripes may occur on the upper forelegs, remnants of the light spotting that covers the young. Melanism (black coloration) is widely reported in the tropics but not in North America. Albinism is infrequent.
The puma is an exceptionally successful generalist predator, and its adaptability probably helped it survive the late Pleistocene extinctions that affected other large North American felids. Although a large cat, pumas are more closely related to the small cats than the other large cats. Because they lack the elastic hyoid apparatus and enlarged vocal folds of the cats in the Panthera genus, pumas often make a purring noise. Pumas cannot roar but are capable of making a variety of other vocalizations. Both sexes have a distinctive call resembling a human woman’s scream that is probably associated with courtship.
Pumas are the second-largest cat in the New World, with adult males weighing 145 to 107 pounds (72 to 53 kilograms) and females weighing 97 to 69 pounds (48-34 kilograms); exceptional males weigh up to 243 pounds (120 kilograms). Pumas are larger toward the extreme southern or northern parts of their range (away from the equator) and have large feet and proportionately the longest hind feet of the cat family.
The puma fossil record is less than one million years old but both molecular and morphologic studies suggest that the puma's origin dates back to the late Miocene Epoch (5 to 8 million years ago) when they evolved from a common ancestor with the cheetah and jaguarundi. In South America, pumas arrived from North America 2 to 4 million years ago during the Great American Interchange when placental carnivores first migrated south from North America following the geologic appearance of the Panama land bridge. Genetic comparisons of pumas have suggested that North American pumas derive from a recent (late Pleistocene, about 10,000 years ago) replacement and recolonization by a small number of founders who themselves originated from a center of genetic diversity in eastern South America 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. The recolonization of North American pumas followed the massive late Pleistocene extinction event that eliminated several other large North American felids such as the North American cheetah, Miracyonyx trumani; North American lion, Panthera leo atrox; and the saber-toothed "tiger," Smilodon fatalis).
Historically pumas ranged from the boreal forests of northern Canada to the tip of South America. Today they still have a broad latitudinal range encompassing a diverse array of habitats, including areas extending from sea level to 19,000 feet (5,800 meters) in the Andes. Although they have been essentially eliminated from eastern North America, pumas now live in areas such as the Great Basin Desert in western North America that have been colonized by deer which were previously outside their historical range. In Central and South America, pumas still occur through much of their historical range. Although pumas have been documented in a remote forested area of east-central New Brunswick, DNA tests of road-killed individuals and other material from that province and adjacent states demonstrated these cats to have been derived from South American origin and presumably originated as escapees or intentionally released individuals. A growing number of confirmed and unconfirmed reports and sightings in eastern North America are usually attributed to escaped animals or misidentified species such as dogs, deer, bobcats, etc. Reports of melanistic individuals in North America are attributed to otters, bears, and dogs. See range map
Pumas have a very broad latitudinal range encompassing a diverse array of habitats, from arid desert to tropical rain forest to cold coniferous forest. Several studies suggest that they prefer habitat with dense undergrowth, but pumas can also live in very open habitats that contain only a minimum of vegetative cover. Pumas are occasionally reported from areas of intensive agricultural cultivation, although such animals are likely to be transient.
In North America, large ungulates, particularly deer, are their principal prey, making up 68 percent of the puma diet. Other prey in that region includes pronghorn, elk, bighorn sheep, moose, and rabbits. In Central and South America, and particularly in the tropics, small- to medium-sized prey appear more important. This includes birds, capybara, rabbits, and other small mammals, as well as ungulates (deer and guanaco). The low rate of predation on larger prey such as tapirs may be linked to interspecific competition with jaguars.
Like most cats, pumas are solitary predators with large territories. Males’ territories are larger than and overlap several those of adjacent females'. Females can breed year-round, but in the northern part of their range, most young are born between April and September. In Chile, births are reported from February to June. Estrus lasts eight days, and following a gestation of 92 days, a litter of two to three spotted cubs are born, two-thirds of which survive their first year in non-hunted populations. Juveniles are independent between 12 and 18 months old. In the wild, pumas in unhunted populations probably live eight to ten years but may survive as long as 18 years. In captivity, extremely old animals live up to 21 years.
Pumas are primarily nocturnal and most active at dusk and dawn. Males make scrapes in prominent locations, especially along the boundaries of their home ranges. Large kills are often covered with scraped-over vegetation and dirt, and pumas often remain in the vicinity, returning frequently to feed until the entire carcass is consumed. During one winter, a puma was observed feeding upon a carcass for 19 days.
Across the Americas, ranchers are likely to continue to view pumas as a threat to their livestock and to attempt to eliminate them. For example, in Arizona and Brazil, calves less than a year old are vulnerable to predation, and in Chile, pumas are significant predators of sheep. Pumas are vulnerable because they return to their kills that can be poisoned. They are also vulnerable because they take to trees when hunted with dogs, where they are easily shot. With legal protection, pumas now live very close to settled areas throughout western North America, and attacks on humans, while infrequent, have increased.
Pumas are listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the eastern portions of the United States. Introduced and now free-living pumas in portions of Florida outside of the range of the Florida subspecies, Puma concolor coryi (commonly referred to as Florida panther), are considered threatened due to similarity of appearance with the Florida subspecies. Eastern and Florida pumas, as well as populations in Eastern and Central America, are protected by Appendix I under CITES; all other populations are protected in international commerce by Appendix II regulations. Hunting is prohibited in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, French Guiana, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Suriname, Venezuela, and Uruguay. Hunting is regulated in Canada, Mexico, Peru and the western United States.
A regional studbook and Population Management Plan (PMP) for pumas held in North America is maintained within the TAG. The target population supported by the AZA Felid TAG is 120 animals. The private sector and non-participating zoos hold thousands more. Pumas are only supported by the PMP for educational purposes, and only if they are part of a geographical theme within a zoo. Breeding is strongly discouraged, and member institutions needing pumas for appropriate areas are advised to obtain their animals as orphans or donation from the public.
The Florida panther, the subspecies referred to as P. c. coryi, has been a target of intensive conservation efforts due to the population having been reduced to a minimum level even as it lives in a human-dominated area. The complexity, difficulties, and cost of this action demonstrate the challenges conservation officials face once large carnivore populations reach seriously depleted levels, in this case dipping to 30-50 individuals confined to fragmented patches of habitat. One subpopulation in the Everglades National Park became extinct in 1991. Genetic analysis has since then demonstrated that other South Florida populations carry genes from South American pumas released in the late 1950s. This could be advantageous, however, as undiluted populations have a number of physiological impairments caused by excessive inbreeding over time. Several attempts at releasing captive born and wild-caught pumas of both Florida and Texas origin have met with mixed results, many individuals losing their fear of man and forcing officials to recapture them after they threatened people and attacked pets.
Historically, 32 subspecies of puma had been described, but more recent genetic comparisons of pumas from populations in North, Central, and South America strongly suggest that many of these subspecies, particularly those in Central and North America, are not valid, this wide-ranging species having far fewer subspecies than originally described decades or longer ago. The more recent research suggested six wild subspecies total based on unique ranges, a group of similar genetic characteristics and a unique natural history relative to other subspecies. In the United States and Canada, this research suggested only a single subspecies, a finding which could have a significant impact on federal and state conservation programs.