Big Cats

Big Cats in the UK – The Puma.

Felis [puma] concolor

The Puma (felis concolor) is actually not a Big Cat. It is a large, graceful and powerful Lesser Cat. Indeed it is the largest of the Lesser Cats. They are defined as Lesser Cats because they cannot roar because they possess a totally ossified hyoid bone. The hyoid bone is the U shaped bone that gives support to the root of the tongue and to the larynx. This also means that whereas small cats can purr in both stages of the breathing cycle, the big cats can purr only when breathing out. The puma has a voice like a loud domestic cat. It does not have the rasping cough characteristic of a leopard.

There are many recognised subspecies of F.concolor – thirty in total and fifteen in North America. However, this quantification has been reduced in recent years, with some authorities questioning the previous level of distinctions.

The generally tawny brown coat on the body has a white or lighter underside, giving the body a flat appearance. The shade of brown ranges from raw sienna to red ochre. In the adult there is a distinctive white muzzle surrounded by a Mexican moustache. There is white on the chin and throat. The legs are thickset with large pads. The tail is thick and long. Massive power in the shoulders, large paws and long claws mean the puma can deliver a fatal blow with a cuffing action of the front paw.

Melanism – black pigmentation of the coat – has until recently been reported only in South America. Firm evidence, i.e. skins, has come to light in Costa Rica. Cases of melanism are now being reported in North America.

Puma measure from 1.2 to 1.4 meters (4 to 6 feet) long and stand 60 to 75 cm (24 to 30 in) at the shoulder. The tail is about 0.7 meters (28 inches) long, as thick as a man’s arm through its length. An adult Puma weighs between 35 and 100 kilograms (70 to 220 pounds) and is second in weight to the jaguar.

The name Puma is taken from the Incas of South America, meaning silent killer. Other names for the Puma are Cougar, Panther or Painter, Mountain Lion, Catamount, American Lion, Mexican Lion, and Deer Tiger.

The Puma used to range across both South and North America, but is now under pressure in the US and in Canada. There they are confined to the high ground of the Rockies in the west, and to a few isolated areas in Florida. In the Patagonian region of South America the Puma is grey-red or grey-silver in coloration. There it preys (inter alia) on Llamas, which it attacks by preference under the cloak of darkness.

The Puma will adapt to many environments. It just needs a supply of food and water, but not to such a great extent as the Leopard. Its major enemy is man, mainly because of its habit of stock depredation coupled with the trait of killing more than it needs to eat in one go (see below).

They occupy large territories in the wild. The male ranges over an area almost twice that covered by the female. In the Americas, his territory can be between four and fourteen square miles, hers between two and eight square miles. In the United Kingdom we have insufficient information to establish a precise territorial area, but it could be as much as seventy miles square.

A puma can travel up to 25 miles in a day if the urge takes it.

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Like many mammals, the puma can swim. Stretches of water are not an obstacle to a puma.

Pairs are very companionable and stay close when breeding. The mating call is a harsh scream. Breeding occurs at any time of year. Thereafter the male moves away and takes no further part in the raising of the young. However the female may mate with more than one male.

A female will breed at from two to three years old, and thereafter in alternate years. She delivers after a pregnancy of 13 weeks (90 to 96 days). Litters range from one to six but averaging two. She gives birth to them in an unprepared and inaccessible spot under a rock, a fallen tree trunk, or in other nook. Dense undergrowth is favoured if there is no other suitable site.

The kittens are around 30cms at birth, weighing approximately 0.4 kilograms. They are blind when born. At seven days they begin to open their eyes, but are unable to see properly until 14 days old. They have black spots on grey coats, with a ringed tail. These spots fade as they grow.

West of Beaminster in Dorset a local woman saw two cat-like kittens at the roadside with light coats and spots overall, indicating puma cubs.

The female will come into season again 9 days after giving birth. Males have been known to kill kittens in order to mate with the female. For this reason the female will try to avoid the kittens making contact with the male.

After six weeks the kits are weaned onto solid food, going with mother to hunt at around two months. Young pumas may stay with their mother for two years, and have been known to continue suckling until half grown. They do not develop full strength in the back until they are at least 12 months old.

Pumas are known to be crepuscular. That is to say they hunt at dusk and dawn to catch prey, which prefer this time to be out feeding.

In the United Kingdom, they are observed hunting in broad daylight.

Life expectancy is said to be between eighteen and twenty years in captivity, and less than half of that in the wild. However records from the US in the 1940’s put this the other way round with the wild stock living up to eighteen, and captured animals to twelve years.

The Puma has a gentle temperament. It used to be regularly tamed. Although attacks on people have been reported, and serious fatalities have occurred, the animal has traditionally not been considered especially dangerous. However where its territory clashes with man, show prudence and wisdom by exercising caution and respect.

Prey is very diverse. It will avail itself of what it can find, from mice, fox, and deer which it prefers, through to sheep, horse and donkey. It has a great appetite for colts and lambs. When attacking flocked livestock it has a nasty habit if killing more than it needs, like a fox in a hen house. However, it will often select just one carcass – which it may mark – to return to feed on later.

It is single minded and bloodthirsty when pursuing and killing its prey. Yet in its contact with humans tends to be timid, secretive and querulous.

On the other hand there are many records from the Americas, especially southern Argentina, of completely unprovoked attacks on humans. The puma is also a carrier of rabies, which has been the cause of several post-attack fatalities.

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