No one wants to encounter a mountain lion on the hiking trail, but hikers may wonder if encountering a cougar is even worse.
A mountain lion and a cougar look exactly the same, and that might make some people wonder if they’re the same or if they have any differences.
Both the mountain lion and the cougar come from the species, Puma concolor, but there are a few differences that distinguish between these two big cats.
Here’s what you need to know about the differences between a cougar and a mountain lion.
Cougar Vs. Mountain Lion (What’s The Difference?)
There are virtually no genetic differences between the cougar and the mountain lion.
They are technically the same species of Puma concolor.
In fact, Puma concolor has several different names, like:
- Mountain lion
- Mountain Cat
- Mountain Screamer
Despite these names, they’re all the same species of cat.
They can all breed together and produce offspring between them.
The only difference between them is their names.
The reason they have different names is that they’re found in different regions of the world.
Each local population tends to call them a different thing.
Because they live in different regions, there are a few differences based on their environment.
They are also subspecies of the Puma concolor species.
That means that while they’re technically the same species, and thus can reproduce together, they have slight variations that distinguish themselves from one another.
A mountain lion has the subspecies name of Puma concolor.
The cougar has the subspecies name of Puma concolor.
1. Hunting Range
One of the reasons people tend to think the mountain lion and the cougar are different species is that they hunt in different areas of the world.
They’re an incredible species that can adapt to various types of climates.
Because of this, the animals that people call mountain lions tend to associate with a certain region of the world, and those that people call cougars tend to associate with another region of the world.
That’s less because of any genetic difference between them and more because the two groups of people don’t live anywhere close to one another.
As such, each group of humans has adopted their own name for the cat.
A mountain lion, for example, is best known in North and Central America.
Because they’re often in highlands and in mountainous areas, the locals called them mountain lions.
Cougars are typically found in the southern portions of the United States and throughout South America.
While they’re the same cat, their environment tends to make them better hunters of prairies and forests.
Their locations also impact their hunting ranges.
Mountain lions tend to hunt up in the mountains while cougars tend to hunt through the forests and in grasslands.
While they do wander, they tend to stick to these areas unless they run out of prey.
Then they might wander out of the habitats they grew up in.
Regardless, mountain lion is the name the people in the Northern and Central states gave to Puma concolor, and cougar is the name the people in the Southern states gave to Puma concolor.
Although they’re the same species, there is a slight size difference between mountain lions and cougars.
Again, this has more to do with their environment than their genetics, however.
Mountain lions tend to be a little larger than cougars.
That’s likely because mountain lions need to be able to jump higher and reach cliffsides and overhangs.
They tend to work their muscles more than cougars because they’re climbing and scaling mountains and highlands.
They also tend to hunt and eat larger mammals which requires them to be bigger to be able to take them down.
Cougars are a little smaller.
Because they live in and hunt in forests and grasslands, it’s more important for them to stay hidden on the ground.
While they do climb, it isn’t as rigorous as climbing in the highlands or mountains.
They instead prefer to stalk their prey in the grass or under the heavy foliage in forests.
Since they prefer to stay low, they’re smaller to obscure themselves better.
They also tend to hunt prey that’s smaller than what the mountain lion eats.
As a result, they don’t need to be larger to take down big prey.
Although they’re the same species, the mountain lion and the cougar have slight size differences between them.
This is solely based on their environment and eating habits.
The diets of the mountain lion and cougar are different, too, although they do share some prey species between them.
That’s largely because some of their prey is only found in the areas in which they typically hunt.
For example, mountain lions tend to hunt deer and even go for elk on occasion.
Elk, in particular, live in the Northern parts of the United States.
Thus, mountain lions, which is the name that people in the north have given to them, have access to elk.
Since they leave in highland areas, their prey tends to be animals that also live in those areas.
That can include llamas, goats, and other similar creatures.
Due to their larger size, mountain lions will hunt and attack larger creatures if they think it’s weak enough for them to take down.
They’ll also eat smaller animals if needed.
Cougars, on the other hand, tend to eat smaller creatures like rabbits, smaller camelids, and foxes.
They aren’t shy around eating larger creatures, too, however.
Some are even brave enough to take on alligators.
Their diet relies on what’s around them.
Both mountain lions and cougars are carnivores.
As such, they’ll hunt and eat anything in their environments that they believe they can kill.
The distinct difference between the two is the animals that live in their environments.
Because mountain lions tend to live in the Northern parts of the United States, they’re often associated with cooler climates.
They live in the mountains and highland areas which always carry cooler temperatures than lowland areas.
Because of that, some people may notice that a mountain lion’s fur is slightly thicker or denser than a cougar’s.
They may also seem a little larger because they need more fat to keep warm.
That’s different from the cougar, which lives in warmer climates.
Their fur may be a little shorter and less dense to help them breathe and stay cool.
That might also contribute to their smaller size since they don’t need as much fat to stay warm.
Because the main difference between mountain lions and cougars is environmental rather than genetic, they’re associated with different climates.
Mountain lions tend to live in cooler climates whereas cougars tend to live in warmer climates.
5. Fur Coloration
The environment in which Puma concolor lives can also affect its hair color slightly.
Mountain lions tend to have a slightly gray tint to their hair.
They still have that tan color associated with the species, but there is a grayer tone when compared to others of the same species.
They also still have a white underbelly, but that might also be of a slightly grayer shade.
Their hair is slightly gray because of their environment.
Mountainous areas tend to be gray in color.
To better blend in with their surroundings, mountain lions have naturally started to turn the same shade of rock and stone that they live around.
It makes them better predators since their prey has a difficult time distinguishing between them and their surroundings.
Although the difference is slight, it does exist.
The cougar also has a slight variation in its hair color.
They tend to be slightly redder in their hair color.
Like the mountain lion, their hair is still a tan with a white underbelly, but there are some traces of red within it.
That also has to do with their environments.
Since some cougars are in the desert, they’re surrounded by red stones and red sand.
Their fur tends toward red variations to better camouflage themselves with their environment.
It also helps them in forests.
The soil in forests can sometimes take on a muddy red color.
With this slight variation in hair color, cougars are better at hunting in forests, too.
Although the mountain lion and cougar are the same species, their environments have slowly allowed them to take on slight variations in their coloring.
This makes them better hunters which means they’re able to survive longer and reproduce.
After several thousand years, this coloration may become more pronounced between them.
What Are The Similarities Between A Mountain Lion And A Cougar?
While there are only a few slight differences between mountain lions and cougars, they share far more similarities.
That’s because they’re genetically the same species.
They’re only subspecies of the same big cat.
Here are some similarities between mountain lions and cougars.
1. Temperament And Hunting Style
Both cougars and mountain lions share the same temperament and hunting style.
They’re solitary creatures.
Although females are capable of breeding year-round, they typically only give birth to cubs every two years.
That’s largely because coming across a compatible male isn’t always easy.
Once she gives birth, she takes care of the cubs for a few months.
Cubs stick with their mother for around 15 months before venturing off on their own.
Some stick around for as long as 26 months.
One reason that mountain lions and cougars may prefer to be solitary rather than in packs or prides is a lack of food and habitat.
Since these animals live in areas where humans live and are expanding into, they have seen a lot of their habitat become destroyed.
This reduces their ability to find a home themselves or sustain themselves with food.
Habitat destruction doesn’t affect a single animal.
It affects the entire cycle of animals living in that area.
To ensure that at least some of them survive, they branch off on their own to find what food and shelter they can.
Besides being solitary, both mountain lions and cougars also prefer to be stealthy predators.
They don’t engage in a hunt or fight if their prey notices them or if they don’t believe that they can take it down.
They’re opportunistic hunters.
They spend some of their time walking and locating prey.
If they find one, then they stalk them for a time to determine if they’re intimidating.
That’s why some wildlife experts will tell you to make yourselves appear big if a mountain lion or cougar is stalking you.
They’re less likely to attack you if they deem you a threat.
For smaller creatures, the big cats like to hide until the creature is at its most vulnerable.
Then they’ll ambush it and go for its throat or try to take it down another way.
Both mountain lions and cougars prefer to stalk and ambush their prey.
The mountain lion and cougar have the same life expectancy as well.
In the wild, both have an average lifespan of 10 years.
Some can live as long as 20 years, though.
Their rapidly decreasing habitat, however, has decreased their lifespan.
Those who live in captivity tend to live around 20 years since they’re receiving food regularly.
Mountain lions and cougars are umbrella species when it comes to conservation.
This means that they are one of the many types of animals that live in a certain habitat that people are trying to save.
Certain regions of mountain lions are not endangered.
As such, they have a rating of “Least Concern,” when it comes to endangerment.
That said, cougars in the east are practically extinct.
That’s because hunters killed them in the 1800s and early 1900s.
They proved a risk to local livestock and were generally frightening to local populaces.
Because of that, humans hunted them to extinction.
Those that survived traveled north, west, or south.
Today, there are virtually no mountain lions or cougars in the eastern portion of the United States.
When they discover a cougar in the east, it’s either because one migrated from a distant territory, or it escaped from captivity.
Mountain lions and cougars that live in Florida are facing concerns with endangerment, however.
There are an estimated 50 cougars living in Florida.
Conservationists have tried to keep a close eye on the small number to keep them safe and promote reproduction.
However, thanks to increasing habitat loss, those efforts have met with difficulty.
Habitat loss also applies to the mountain lions and cougars found in the western portions of the United States and in the Amazon rainforest.
Whether it’s through logging or wildfires, their habitat is slowly decreasing.
That affects all the animals within the area including mountain lions and cougars.
Although they are presently a “least concern” species, their numbers are decreasing.
Because of their solitary nature, both mountain lions and cougars are territorial.
They use different methods to mark their territory.
Although they’re cats and look similar to lions, they’re actually closer to domesticated cats.
Because of that, they’re unable to roar like African lions.
Instead, they make a screaming sort of sound which is why it’s called the mountain screamer in certain regions.
Shrieking is a way for them to mark their territory.
They’ll also growl and purr like a cat.
To mark their territory, they’ll use their claws to scratch against wood and rocks.
Their paws also have pheromone glands within them that leave a scent behind on the things that they scratch.
When another mountain lion or cougar approaches the area, they can smell the pheromones.
It tells them someone has already claimed that area and that they need to move on.
How To Fend Off A Mountain Lion Or Cougar
Both mountain lions and cougars are dangerous animals in the wild.
Although they primarily stay away from humans, attacks can happen.
The best thing you can do when you encounter a mountain lion or cougar is to face it and slowly back away.
You should never run from a mountain lion or cougar.
You’ll also need to give it plenty of space if you see that it’s traveling with its cubs.
They’ll defend their young if you’re too near them.
If the mountain lion starts to approach you, then you need to raise your arms and make yourself look as big as possible.
It can also help to expand your jacket.
Make loud and sudden noises but don’t jerk towards the animal or act aggressively.
You’re attempting to intimidate it.
Finally, if the mountain lion or cougar continues to advance, then you’ll want to throw stones and sticks at it.
Anything you can get your hands on, throw at it to scare it off.
Mountain lions and cougars are the same species, but they are two different subspecies.
The major difference between them is the regional name each group of people has given to it.
Their environment has also made a few distinguishing marks between them.
In most cases, however, the mountain lion and the cougar are more similar than they are different.