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.
Great and informative article, thanks for posting it!
just over the weekend a mountain lion was spotted in the James River Park in the middle of Richmond, VA. It was spotted by a guy on my adventure racing team. He’s an experienced (and accomplished) trail runner and adventure racer. He’s race all over the U.S. and Europe. He’s also a PhD research biologist. He’s a straight ahead guy and no BS. He saw it just before dawn, it crossed his trail which at the time was the fire road and he saw the full silhouette – tail and all! He saw it jump into a tree and when he ran by it, it roared/screamed at him. Up until this point I was VERY skeptical as to cougars in the east – I’m a believer now.
Any chance he was able to take a picture? We would love to see it if he did.
-eMammal research team
no photos – I know how he runs and it’s very minimalist, very similar to my running…just head-lamp, shoes, shorts and shirt – no smart phones. Crazy – middle of the city but on a river that starts and runs through the mountains so it does make sense.
We just got a first confirmed mountain lion sighting on a trail camera in tennessee. TWRA finally admits that what is on that trail camera in west TN is a mountain lion.
Sorry for the delay in reply, but we would love to see the trail cam photo in Tennessee. Please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org
A few years back my sister in Hadley MA (a mostly agricultural area) had one cross her back yard. No mistaking that tail. She routinely sees a wide range of wildlife including the occasional bobcat and fisher. The mountain lion sighting (by several people) was poo-poo’d by authorities, maintaining there were no Mountain Lions in New England. Within a few weeks, the body was found dead by the side of the road, struck by a car in Easthampton MA. Nope. There’s no such thing as Mountain lions in MA.
It will be very interesting to see if more mountain lions find that same route and disperse back east. If you have any photos or other evidence of mountain lions in MA please send it over to us.
I saw one this morning in Hadley MA, plain as day. Long tail, black tail end, and large enough tip-to-tail to cover an entire lane of the road crossing it.
I believe there was a mtn lion caught on camera on the goule hunting an fishing camp in Indian lake ny last summer.
I have seen a mountain lion my father has seen a mountain lion in Salem Virginia twice in 2013. I am a former animal control officer and my father was a trapper and know what he saw. And others have reported a sighting near twelve o’clock knob in roanoke county which is about five miles from my fathers house.
If you ever get any camera trap photos please send them our way.
Excellent work here. One missing piece on dispersal. In 25 years of Prairie source colony dispersal, a female has yet to appear in the Midwest. No females, no breeding, no recolonization.
Two articles produced by the Cougar Rewilding Foundation that were republished by the Mountain Lion Foundation:
Cougar Mortalities and the Evidence Against Recolonization:
Click to access UMW%20O%20Cougar%20Rewilding%20Foundation%20June%202012%20Newsletter%20Excerpt%20Cougar%20Mortalities%20in%20Central%20North%20America%20and%20the%20Evidence%20Against%20Recolonization%20East%20of%20the%20Prairie%20Colonies.pdf
No Exit: Nebraska Shuts Another Door East
I have no doubt there are Panther in Mississippi, in 2011, when the ms river flooded severely, our home was completely surrounded by water, and a panther swam wolf lake with its kit in her mouth . She proceeded to park herself under our shed. No, we did not get pictures. No way anyone was venturing out there with a camera. She stayed under that shed for a full night and day. Then she left. I don’t know if she swam looking for less inhabited high ground or what but she had to stop at our place because she was so exhausted she was almost expired. She was certainly a transitory cat because we do not have these large cats in the open delta, but she was displaced from the flood and I know she was there without a question.I figure she came from either the Delta National Forest or maybe Panther Swamp all a good 20 to 40 miles from our home. Also, when she made it ashore she lay on the bank for a solid 10 minutes catching her breath before she hid in the shed. There was no mistaking what she was. She was about 3 ft long with a tail almost as long as her body. She was dark in color but indeterminable because she was soaking wet. Most likely a dark tan or brown but wet she looked darker.The most amazing thing was the sounds she made communicating with her baby.
Great story, thank you for posting!
So… morning before yesterday I took Hercules, our 12 wk old pup, to the back for his early morning testimonial. He’s checking out something in between the trees. So,I’m now intently staring at this what I think is a stump, and continue to let him Hercules sniff. Next thing …the stump moves and up the tree it goes, dark, slinky rather large with a tail. I hightailed it outta there, practically draggin the poor pup, didn’t and wasn’t lookin back, BTW ran into the tree on the fly….. Alerted the family to be cautious and so we all have. Well…. just talked with our newsworthy Gaylordsville Authority, our trustworthy mail lady…… and she confirms it’s a mountain lion. Been spotted on the next block (where the Neapolitan Crèche used to be). Probably after the chickens next door.
I photographed a mountain lion footprint today on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. Perfect, fresh print in wet mud.
Please send us a copy of the photo at email@example.com, we would love to take a look!
What about black mountain lions? There are a few on my people’s land in East,TN all though they have allready killed two.
Hi James, there have been no documented cases of black mountain lions killed for bounty or sport since people started collecting records at the turn of the century. Black “panthers” are jaguars, or leopards in the old world, that have developed an entirely black coat instead of spots. If you have hair from a black mountain lion you should definitely send some into the Smithsonian Natural History Museum or the National Zoo for DNA testing.
Well I could either kill the thing or get the records from the TN,
wildlife and game where they euthanized one in the 90’s from our land.
I live in North eastern Alabama and have seen mountainlion @1 mile from my house,and I have pictures of the tracks
We would be very interested to see the pictures of the tracks. Feel free to send some photos to firstname.lastname@example.org
I live in NC. We have visited the Conservator’s Center “find on FB” in Caswell Co. They have many big cats “lions & tigers” and many other animals there. They vehemently say a mountain lion had come through the area every several months and all the cats there go crazy.
Saw one at 5 am this morning on Cherohala sky way. I was about fifty yards from where I saw one about five years ago. I can only presume there is a den nearby and maybe this is the time of year they have young ones. Makes four that I have seen in my 55 years back in the mountains. I am an avid hunter and trapper and know what I am looking at. I live ten miles from the closest town and practically live in the woods. I love to hear these educated office dwellers tell me I don’t know what I am seeing.
I did not mistake a bob cat for a mountain lion in February 2011. I was in my jeep at Blackthorn creek WV on Thorn Mountain when I spotted a cougar, brown almost copper colored with a tail that was very very long. When the cat spotted me it ran and disappeared up the hill that lead to a road to my property. This was near Sugar Grove, WV located in Pendleton County. The cat was skinny and ribs were showing. The animal appeared to be possibly 8 ft. long which included the length of the tail.
This was in our local news here in TN.
I spotted one crossing the road one night a couple of miles before my house in North Andover, in northern MA. I live near a state park and there is still some farmland, some open fields, ponds, and forest land in the area. We have seen a lot of wildlife here, many deer, fishers, a bear… The big cat was tawny, almost grayish, with that long tail, and huge, just running beautifully, as if it owned the place. Not a bobcat.