Wildlife
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Big Cats

Catch a  glimpse of these ultimate stealth predators – if you can

By Brian M. Collins
Published: February 17, 2011
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Photo by Karen Arnold
Of all carnivores domesticated to the house (or the cabin), cats have earned a notorious reputation for being smooth and calculated loners. Cats are keen observers and hunters, masters of hiding when they wish to be alone and only occasionally cuddly – and only when it suits the cat, of course.
   
Wild cats, as it turns out, share many of the same personality traits as our domestic cats, and as wild animals go, they are the most difficult to find and to observe. For most folks, myself included, experiences with North America’s wild cats are not all that direct. Tracks, scat and other evidence of where a cat has been will outnumber actual live sightings 1,000 to one. They are North America’s ultimate stealth predators.

Big Cat Roll Call
   
North America is home to a few species of wild cats. Jaguars, the rarest of these, disappeared from the lower 48 states a long time ago. Though some jaguars have appeared in Arizona, they reproduce only south of the Rio Grande. Other south-of-the-border species, including the ocelot and jaguarundi, are rarely found in the extreme southern United States any longer, because agriculture has rendered habitat conditions less than favorable.
   
Despite global concerns for wild cats of all kinds, three species are actually quite common in the United States and Canada: the bobcat, the mountain lion, and the Canadian lynx. Of these, the bobcat is the most widespread and abundant, living throughout the United States and Mexico in areas as variable as rocky desert high country, forested river valleys and deep northwoods forests.
   
Mountain lions occupy much of the western North American continent, making the Rocky Mountains their stronghold.
   
A subspecies of mountain lion, the Florida panther, is hanging on in a small area of southern Florida.
   
Canadian lynx are uncommon in the Great Lakes regions but are widespread throughout the deep spruce and fir forests of Canada and the Rocky Mountains.

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As this young mountain lion matures, it may wander as many as 600 miles in a single season.
Photo by Stef Bennett
Meet the Mountain Lion … Or Not?
   
The mountain lion is the most exciting of big cats, as it tends to be the object of folklore and a symbol of our anxieties in big and wild spaces. “Cougar,” “puma,” “panther,” “catamount,” and “mountain lion” are all terms that can be used interchangeably for this, the largest of North America’s regularly occurring big cats.
   
The mountain lion is North America’s truly BIG cat, with a long tail and a sandy, lion-colored pelt. At 6 to 8 feet in length and weighing in at between 150 and 160 pounds, cougars prey almost exclusively on larger herbivores such as deer.
   
The cougar is quickly categorized as one of those spectacular animals that just about everyone would love to see – from a safe distance. After all, this is the ultimate stealth predator, an animal that will use ambush to its advantage and that can bite through the nape of a deer’s neck, breaking the vertebrae to a quick conclusion.
   
Despite their large size, mountain lions are seldom seen. Even though an estimated 5,000 live in Colorado alone, hikers are more likely to see posted signs informing them on how to best deal with a mountain lion than to encounter real tracks, scat or an actual animal. Only people who aggressively pursue cougars, especially with the aid of trained dogs, are likely to actually see one of the big cats.
   
Though not a common problem, cougars can be dangerous to humans, as can all large species of wildlife. Livestock killings, losses of pets to hungry pumas and even a dozen or so tragic encounters with people in the last century have been the grim marks on the intersection between the domains of panthers and people.  
   
In cougar country, cabin owners may wish to avoid feeding deer to prevent conflicts with hungry mountain lions, and though it may seem cliché, parents should keep a close eye on children. Hikers should be especially cautious around deer kills and should immediately leave the area. If you do meet a puma, remember to stay calm, make an appearance of strength and confidence, and back slowly away.

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The most adaptable of all North American big cats, the bobcat has a flair for diverse cuisine.
Photo by John James Henderson
The Elusive but Common Bobcat
   
The first time I ever saw a bobcat, my idea of what this animal was supposed to be blew apart with the adrenaline rush. That supposed sleek and slender housecat was built like a miniature bear; all solid muscle, plowing along at a full sprint. Its shoulders were broad, its feet were big, and its head was as round as a cantaloupe.  
   
The cat had been hunting sandpipers along a river’s edge, and upon discovering my looming shape, it exploded through a stand of pencil-thin willows, crossed an open sand flat, and disappeared into tangles along the Bad River of northern Wisconsin. I had just enough time to look at the white spots behind each ear, to see the big footpads, and without a doubt, to confirm that the tail was short and striped in black.
   
The typical bobcat weighs in at slightly less than 25 pounds, though northern cats are quite a bit larger. Like a theatrical performer of the animal kingdom, each bobcat is adorned with expressive facial markings and boldly contrasting spots and stripes that aid in camouflage.
   
Bobcats tend to be small mammal hunters, specialists with the flexibility to experiment with new foods. More than 50 different species of animals fall prey to hungry bobcats, though its most common prey are rabbits and small rodents. Despite a common diet of smaller animals, bobcats are capable of taking larger prey, including deer.
   
Maintaining an area large enough to support kittens with ample prey and cover requires bobcats to live territorial, solitary lives. Though a male will tolerate a female (and vice versa) within a home range, bobcats are fiercely solitary and communicate territory boundaries using scat, urine markings and repeated scratching on trees.
   
While bobcats are quite common within an expansive North American range, they are very wary and seldom seen. They tend to fare better in areas with abundant wild country that provide a mix of habitats, and they spend a great deal of time on the go, searching for prey and marking the far corners of their home ranges.

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The lynx’s big feet, long legs, and characteristic ear tufts are field marks you can count on – if you are lucky enough to see one!
Photo by Jens Klingebiel
Lynx: Snowshoes of the North
   
After an adventure into deep winter snows amid balsam firs and alders last winter in northern Minnesota, I can now say I have seen the tracks of the Canadian lynx. The tracks were a treasure to behold in perfect snowshoe hare habitat, a land of deep snow and thick balsam fir. The big, furry feet of the lynx had left tracks within a 2-inch powder of snow atop drifts passing through deep conifer timbers.
   
As I followed the tracks, I fell thigh-deep through some of the drifts. I guess snowshoes would have helped. Indeed, that is exactly what function is found in the massive feet of the lynx. The snowshoe-like adaptation is a common feature to both predator and prey in these boreal forests of deep snow. To catch a snowshoe hare, with its agile buoyancy, a lynx needs to match the strategy. Even the grouse that lynx prey upon have specialized scales on their toes that aid in walking atop fresh powdered snow.
   
Spotting a lynx for the first time, many people report having first mistaken the lynx for a wolf. Unlike bobcats, lynx have very long legs and big feet. From a distance, a family of lynx will give the general appearance of a wolf pack. Unlike the bobcat, lynx are more uniformly gray, have huge feet and have a black tip on a shorter tail. If you are close enough to see the long tufts atop each ear, you are truly lucky.

An Umbrella Species
   
Big cats are complicated animals, big personalities with intense needs. A wild cat maintains a territory large enough to provide for a litter of kittens – a wild place that provides for a year of solitary hunting, lots of prey, and plenty of places to rest and to den.
   
To see a wild cat, especially with young, is to read a message on the landscape that says, “All is well here.” If the cat is there, the herbivore prey must be there too. Since the prey is there in enough abundance to support the cat, enough good habitat must exist to support all of that prey. Seeing that good habitat is there, all sorts of amazing, diverse plants and animals must be living there too, perhaps in abundance.
   
Saving populations of big cats means saving habitats and the complex diversity of species that take shelter under the “umbrellas” defined by each and every individual cat. To save the big cats is to save the ecosystems of the world.

Brian M. Collins once slumbered soundly near the shores of Old Man Lake in Glacier National Park, dreaming peacefully while a mountain lion screamed a bone-chilling scream, waking all other people in camp. Missed it! At least the huckleberry pancakes were delicious!


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Photo by Ryszard Laskowski
Cat Tracks
   
Each year, conservation biologists must sort through myriad reports of big cats and their tracks. Often, the tracks of mountain lions end up being wolf tracks, dog tracks and even bear tracks. One of the best mountain lion tracks I ever got on hands and knees to observe seemed too large to be for real. Further, careful observation revealed the track to be from a small black bear, the fifth toe having failed to register in the drying mud. Cat tracks have four very common characteristics:

The toes are round, as is the overall shape of the track. Think “round.”

The pad is very large and often has three distinct lobes.

Claws rarely register in the track.

Three toes form a diagonal line. The fourth toe rests back as if a “thumb.” This makes the track asymmetrical, while dog tracks are symmetrical.



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Bobcat
Photo by dreamstime.com
Who’s Who in North American Big Cats

Bobcat (Lynx rufus): Common, widespread, adaptable. The lightweight of the bunch, though its 20 to 25 pound frame is very sturdy. Variably spotted with a short tail, it survives on rabbits, birds, mice and voles.

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Mountain Lion
Photo by dreamstime.com
Mountain Lion (Puma concolor): A large, powerful predator, it weighs 80 to 200 pounds. Recognized by overall sandy color and very long tail. Occupies diverse habitat, though it is far more common in the Rockies.  Preys primarily on deer.

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Florida Panther
Photo by dreamstime.com
Florida Panther (Puma concolor coryi): A highly endangered subspecies of the mountain lion. Weighs between 70 and 130 pounds. Only about 50 survive today. A victim of high human population, considerable efforts are underway to save this big cat.

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Canadian Lynx
Photo by dreamstime.com
Canadian Lynx (Lynx canadensis): A truly northern specialist, occupies boreal forests. Large feet and long legs are adapted to life in deep snow. Preys primarily on snowshoe hare. Long ear tufts, gray overall coloration.
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Ocelot
Photo by dreamstime.com
Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis): Listed as a federally endangered species in the United States, it is a southern rarity of tropical forests and thorn scrub. Resides in the lower Rio Grande valley. Big spots and a long tail adorn this slim and lightweight wild cat. Suited to hunting small prey in brushy areas.

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Jaguarundi
Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildflife Service
Jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi): Another southern rarity, it is possibly eradicated from the United States. Suited to desert country nearer to water in cover of cactus, mesquite and thorny scrub.  Overall dark color and truly unique build. Perhaps best described in appearance as a blend between house cat and mountain lion, its short legs earn it the nickname “otter cat.”

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Jaguar
Photo by dreamstime.com
Jaguar (Panthera onca): The jaguar is a muscular, spotted and truly big cat – the largest big cat of the Americas, weighing as much as 300 pounds. Once a southwestern resident to areas north of the Rio Grande, it now breeds south of the Rio Grande. Requires large tracts of unbroken forest. Preys on wild pigs, deer and other large animals.

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