An unidentified land owner in Macon County, Missouri received quite a surprise when he happened upon large, cat prints in a muddy creek bed. Though no one witnessed the cat, pictures of the tracks where identified as those of a Puma concolor or more commonly, a mountain lion. The recent confirmation makes a total of seven verified mountain lion sightings in Missouri since November.
The April 20th paw print sighting in a Northeast Missouri town called Economy, is further evidence of an influx of mountain lions spreading into the “Show Me State.” Conservation Department’s Mountain Lion Response Team (MLRT) spokesman Rex Martensen said rainwater washed the prints away before physical viewing of the site could be achieved, however photos match those of known mountain lion tracks. The Conservation Department reported they are not looking for the animal, but they are collecting data to help track the movement of the mountain lions. The latest sighting corresponds with research suggesting the animals are migrating to Missouri from other states where mountain lion populations are growing.
Mountain lion’s population statistics have been one of debate for many years. Also known as puma, cougar or panther, these graceful cats were nearly eradicated in the Eastern United States and dwindled in the Western states. Officially, Panthers roam thirteen states: Arizona, California, Idaho, Colorado, Florida, South Dakota, Montana, New Mexico, Washington, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. With increased sightings in other states, the animal’s official habitat range is expanding. Many believe the reason for increased population numbers and habitat expansion is due to shifts in human thought and established hunting bans on the cats.
Mountain lions are versatile mammals living in diverse habitats from elevations of sea level to 10,000 feet and from desert to rainforest conditions. Pumas roam territories reaching 130 square miles for males and less than half that mileage for females. Territories often overlap and are successfully shared by the cats provided the area offers a large enough food source, primarily deer. Once territories are established, cougars do not willingly leave.
Visual verification and paw print measurements are the main identification features used to distinguish cougars from bobcats, coyotes and dogs. Visually, cougar males reach lengths of 7 – 8 feet from head to tail. Their fur is short with hues ranging from orange to brown to gray. An adult male averages 140 – 160 pounds, while a female averages 90 – 130 pounds. At cub stage cougars and bobcats are quite similar. Cougar cubs are born brown with black spots and dark rings around their tails and legs. As the cub ages the spots fade, disappearing around 18 months, the tail rings fade around 9 months, while the leg rings remain until 2.5 years. It is during the cub stage that misidentification of mountain lions most often occur.
As in the Missouri sighting, when visual verification is not an option, paw print tracks are used to verify the animal. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation website, four identifying features are used to determine the animal. 1. Pumas have three lobes at the bottom of their pads, while dogs and coyotes have one indent at the bottom of their pads. 2. Pumas have tear-drop shaped toes, while dogs and bobcats have oval shaped toes. 3. Even at 6 months of age a puma’s prints are larger than an adult bobcat. Typically a mountain lions will leave 3 – 3.5 inch wide tracks. Bobcats leave smaller tracks at around 2 inches wide. 4. The last distinguishing feature is lack of claw marks. A dog or coyote will leave claw marks, while a cougar typically does not leave a mark.
Mountain lions are beautiful cats, but like all wildlife it is important to pay attention to signs of the animal. They strike quickly and can cause mass amounts of property damage. Signs of puma’s should be reported to the local Conservation Department.
Photo Credit: blm.gov/id/st/en/prog/wildlife/carnivores/mountain_lion.print.html