Mountain lions (Puma concolor) have taken on a near mythic status in the eastern US. Unconfirmed sightings are rare but routine, and speculation is often fueled by photos from other parts of the country passed off as local proof of mountain lions. Interest in mountain lions is so high that one of the most frequently asked questions to the eMammal research team is whether we have captured a photo of a mountain lion. We are also interested in mountain lions so we asked ourselves:
Is there actual evidence of mountain lions living in the eastern US?
As it turns out, there is no good evidence that there are mountain lion populations east of the Mississippi (except for Florida of course). How can we be so sure? Mountain lions are very stealthy animals and survive by sneaking up on deer and killing them, so it is not unreasonable to think that some might go undetected in large forests. All this is true, but despite all the sneaking around mountain lions always leave some kind of sign, especially the young males that are typically moving into new areas. A good example of how hard it is for a mountain lion to sneak across the east is the young male (CORRECTION the mountain lion had no collar) from South Dakota that wandered through Minnesota, Wisconsin, and likely the Upper Peninsula of Michigan before finally being hit by a car in Connecticut. In all of these places people collected hair, scat, or pictures of the mountain lion and the origin of the animal in South Dakota was confirmed through DNA analysis. He was the only confirmed mountain lion in all of Connecticut but was seen several times right after he arrived in the state before being accidentally killed.
The eMammal project has placed cameras in 30 parks larger than 10 km2 from Tennessee and South Carolina North to Maryland. Volunteers have placed cameras in over 2,100 locations and we have not collected a single mountain lion picture. One of our eMammal scientists was also involved in a large project testing different methods of mammal surveys that placed cameras, bait stations, track plates, and hair snares throughout New York state (Gompper et al. 2006). How many mountain lions did they find? None. Smithsonian scientists also ran a camera trapping project along the Appalachian Trail (AT) in Virginia that was similar to eMammal. Volunteers placed around 450 cameras up and down the AT using scent lure as bait and had zero mountain lion detections (“Monitoring in NETN – Appalachian Trail – Mammal Survey” n.d.).
The Eastern Mountain Lion foundation is a science based advocacy group dedicated to restoring the mountain lion to the east and collect sightings and stories of mountain lions. They have also not received any credible pictures or biological samples of mountain lions east of the Mississippi.
The nearest confirmed established and breeding mountain lion populations are in the Black Hills of North and South Dakota and western Nebraska. Mountain lions have been dispersing away from these population areas, and researchers recently mapped all confirmed mountain lion observations from 1990-2008 (LaRue et al. 2012). The map from that publication is shown below, with the current mountain lion range in green and confirmed mountain lion locations as black dots. The map shows two things: how far dispersing mountain lions can move and that the Mississippi river is a formidable barrier. The male that made it to Connecticut likely went north through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan into Canada and then back into Connecticut from the north.
Figure 1 – Mountain lion range and confirmed sightings from 1990-2008. Map reproduced from LaRue et al. 2012.
All this being said there are many people that keep mountain lions as pets (both legally and illegally). Some sightings could be an escaped or released pets, but in the majority of those situations in other parts of the country these animals are quickly captured and proven to be former pets. No sightings have resulted in capture of a former pet mountain lion in the east to our knowledge.
In the interest of gathering credible mountain lion sightings when mountain lions actually arrive in the east the research team here at eMammal has put together a guide to identifying mountain lions.
- The tail. Mountain lions have a long tail that is usually darker colored at the tip. This tail is a distinctive feature of mountain lions, but it is so widely known that it is easy for people to convince themselves that they saw a long tail when they may not have. The bobcat picture below would be easy to mistake for a mountain lion for a novice because the back leg and short tail are in line and could look like one long tail.
- The size. Mountain lions are usually about six feet long including the tail, but are much smaller than most people think. They typically stand no taller than a white-tailed deer and weigh about as much. We have included a visual comparison of a bobcat and mountain lion from the North Dakota Fish and Game below (“Mountain Lion | North Dakota Game and Fish” n.d.).
- The color. Mountain lions are usually light brown, or tawny, but can range from tan to dark gray. There has never been a black mountain lion specimen collected by science, including the thousands of cats that were shot for bounties in the early part of the 20th century and despite several museums around the world sending collectors with the express purpose of collecting a black mountain lion. A cryptozoologist (a scientist who studies animals that are hard to find or legendary) named Dr. Shuker has an interesting blog post on this very topic. The only large cats that have confirmed black forms are leopards (Panthera pardus) and jaguars (Panthera onca).
- Internet photos. Don’t believe mountain lion photos that claim to be from the east without investigation. We have received many of these photos and they are all pictures of mountain lions or jaguars (all the black “mountain lion” pictures) from other places in the world. Most of the time the person sending them to us believes that the photo is genuine. It is only a matter of time before the California picture in this blog post is sent back to us as proof of mountain lions in Virginia.
What could be mistaken for a mountain lion? Bobcats, yellow labs, and feral house cats are all common culprits for mountain lion mis-identification.
We may have convinced some of you that there are no mountain lions in the east, but we would add that there are no mountain lions…yet. Mountain lions are very good at dispersing. They range from almost the Arctic in northern Canada down to the tip of South America. They crossed into South America shortly after the land bridge between North and South America was joined 3 million years ago, and there is genetic evidence that the Pleistocene extinction event that wiped out the mammoths also wiped most mountain lions in North America and South American mountain lions recolonized the entire North America continent about 10,000 years ago (O’Brien et al. 2000)! These huge movements show that mountain lions can cover a lot of ground and will stay if they can find suitable habitat and prey. Someday soon the east may have its own population of mountain lions hunting deer through the deciduous forests.
Gompper, M. E., R. W. Kays, J. C. Ray, S. D. Lapoint, D. A. Bogan, and J. R. Cryan. 2006. A Comparison of Noninvasive Techniques to Survey Carnivore Communities in Northeastern North America. Wildlife Society Bulletin 34:1142–1151.
LaRue, M. A., C. K. Nielsen, M. Dowling, K. Miller, B. Wilson, H. Shaw, and C. R. Anderson. 2012. Cougars are recolonizing the midwest: Analysis of cougar confirmations during 1990–2008. The Journal of Wildlife Management 76:1364–1369.
Monitoring in NETN – Appalachian Trail – Mammal Survey. (n.d.). . http://science.nature.nps.gov/im/units/netn/parkPages/APPA_sup/projects/Wildlife/Wildlife.cfm.
Mountain Lion | North Dakota Game and Fish. (n.d.). . http://www.gf.nd.gov/conservation/north-dakota-game-species-information/mountain-lion.
O’Brien, S., M. Culver, W. Johnson, and J. Pecon-Slattery. 2000. Genomic ancestry of the American puma (Puma concolor). Journal of Heredity 91:186–197.