How to identify Mountain Lion tracks and signs.
About Mountain Lions
Mountain lions, also called cougars, may be found from the Canadian Yukon to the southern Andes of South America. They possess the largest territory of any wild mammal. Mountain lions are mostly solitary animals, preferring to hunt and sleep alone. A single male may require up to 175 square miles of territory for its home range.
Mountain lions are normally silent and nocturnal, preferring to hunt at night. They are extremely quick but have poor endurance. They kill their prey by biting the back of the neck to severe the spinal cord or the throat to crush the trachea. They will then drag the prey into the brush to consume. Any leftovers are covered with debris so the mountain lion can return later to finish its meal.
Mountain lions typically eat rodents, insects, racoons, birds, foxes, and deer.
Mountain Lion characteristics
Mountain lions have round heads with erect ears. They have five retractable claws on the front foot and four on the rear foot. The front feet are larger than the rear feet, useful for gripping prey. They range in height from 2-3 feet and are up to 8-feet long. They may weigh from 120 lbs. to 220 lbs. Males average about 150 lbs. Females weigh about 120 lbs.
Mountain lion color can vary widely from silvery-gray to reddish orange with light patches on the underbody, under the jaws, chin, and throat. Baby mountain lions are spotted with blue eyes and dark rings on their tails.
Mountain Lion tracking and signs
To track a mountain lion, follow the traditional tracking method. Mountain lion tracks are roundish with diameters ranging from 2.75 to 3.75 inches. They show four toes, normally without claws. You can differentiate from the left and right track by the lead toe. The lead toe (2nd toe) sits further out than the other toes. The first toe next to it sits further back than all other toes. A lead toe on the left side indicates a right footprint.
Palm pads are trapezoid-shape with two lobes towards the front of the pad and three lobes toward the rear. The rear lobes, located at the base of the heel, may not show if the depression is not deep enough. The front tracks are larger, wider, and more asymmetrical than the hind tracks.
The mountain lion’s gait is typically an overstep walk (hind foot lands ahead of where the front foot had landed). The length varies from 15 to 30 inches.
The mountain lion may also direct register (hind feet step inside of where the front foot has landed), especially when moving through snow.
Like cats, the mountain lion will usually walk instead of run, making their tracks clean and undisturbed with an evenly distributed depression.
Mountain lion scat will be from 1 to 1 ½ inches in diameter. It will be formed into dense, blunted segments with a smooth surface and strong odor. It may contain meat remains but will almost never contain fruits, seeds, or nuts. The mountain lion may scrape the ground or cover scat with debris like a house cat.
Mountain lions prefer dense underbrush to use for stalking and unless moving toward water, may not follow a well-known animal trail.
Beds and lays
Mountain lions choose sleeping locations that help them avoid predators. They will often sleep on hard slopes near cliffs and outcrops and in dense plant cover. In snow, they well bed down on south-facing slopes.
Mountain lions create marking signs to communicate with other cats. They may scrape the ground with their hind feet, then urinate over it. This marking is often found near kill sites. They will also occasionally scratch trees.
Large dog tracks are often mistaken for cougar tracks. Dog tracks differ by their shape. They are usually symmetrical with no prominent lead toe. Dogs have a more triangular palm pad that is much smaller in relationship to the toes.
Groups and species
Argentine cougar (Puma concolor cabrerae) Pocock, 1940: includes the previous subspecies and synonyms hudsonii and puma (Marcelli, 1922)
Eastern South American cougar (P. c. anthonyi) Nelson and Goldman, 1931: includes the previous subspecies and synonyms acrocodia, borbensis, capricornensis, concolor, greeni, and nigra
North American cougar (P. c. couguar) Kerr, 1792: includes the previous subspecies and synonyms arundivaga, aztecus, browni, californica, floridana, hippolestes, improcera, kaibabensis, mayensis, missoulensis, olympus, oregonensis, schorgeri, stanleyana, vancouverensis, and youngi
Northern South American cougar (P. c. concolor) Linnaeus, 1771: includes the previous subspecies and synonyms bangsi, incarum, osgoodi, soasoaranna, sussuarana, soderstromii, suçuaçuara, and wavula
Southern South American cougar (P. c. puma) Molina, 1782: includes the previous subspecies and synonyms araucanus, concolor, patagonica, pearsoni, and puma (Trouessart, 1904)
P. c. concolor in South America, possibly excluding the region northwest of the Andes, and
P. c. couguar in Central and North America, and possibly northwest South America.