Understanding America’s Big Cat: An Introduction to the Teton Cougar Project

F61, an adult female being tracked as part of the Teton Cougar Project exhibits the characteristic rusty, orangey coat of Northern Rockies mountain lions. Photograph by Mark Elbroch/Panthera

Mountain lion, cougar, puma, panther, catamount, léon, Puma concolor. These are among the many names used to describe this large, lithe, solitary felid that ranges from southernmost Alaska to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. Concolor means “single color” and is meant to describe the uniform pelage of adult animals. However, those of us who are intimate with real cougars will tell you that their pelage varies from orange-rust to tawny-yellow to slate gray depending upon locale, and that the various hues in a single cat’s coat are too many to count.

Photo of gray cougar
Adult male cougar, gray, Patagonia. Photograph by Mark Elbroch/Panthera

The cougar’s coat is an excellent place to begin, for it introduces the subjects of mountain lion natural history, some contradictory literature we might encounter, and some of what we don’t know about this charismatic carnivore. Allen et al. (2011) proposed that the various coat patterns observed in wild felid are strongly correlated with their habitat selection, providing both defensive and tactical camouflage. They concluded that uniformly-colored felids, like the mountain lion, were more associated with open, well-illuminated habitats, and that felids wearing spots and stripes were more associated with complex forests.

Yet, most research on cougars speaks to the contrary. Cougars are called “habitat generalists,” and utilize nearly every habitat stretching across their range. Nevertheless, research in North America has shown that cougars actually avoid open habitats, including deserts and grasslands, and prefer structured habitats like forests. So, we might ask ourselves whether adult cougars should be spotted instead?

Photo of cougar kitten with spots
Cougar kittens, by contrast, are spotted. Photograph by Dave Priestly/Teton Cougar Project

Panthera, a US-based nonprofit organization dedicated to wild cat conservation, collaborates with National Geographic on their Big Cat Initiative, a strategic effort designed to aid the world’s most imperiled felids. Panthera’s flagship cougar project is found in northwest Wyoming, and is one of few long-term studies of this amazing species. The Teton Cougar Project was recently host to Steve Winters and Drew Rush, National Geographic photographers on assignment to capture images of wild mountain lions for a recent National Geographic article “Ghost Cats,” penned by Doug Chadwick. For more than a year, the pair of photographers worked with the TCP, and the rewards of their labor can be seen both online and in the December issue of the magazine.

Panthera logo

Cougars are “umbrella” species used to identify and preserve wildlife corridors and natural landscapes, as well as keystone species vital to ecosystem health and diversity. Cougars capture the imagination; they are charismatic, controversial and draw attention across communities with polarized views and interests. Thus, cougar research is about communicating with diverse and often opposing demographics, and building bridges between polarized communities in an effort to erase old mythology that drives continuous persecution of this species.

Follow us on Facebook, where we continue to share images and videos of wild mountain lions captured as part of ongoing research efforts. And I’ll be adding updates on our research in future National Geographic blog posts—stay tuned.

Allen WL, Cuthill IC, Scott-Samuel NE, Baddeley R. 2011. Why the leopard got its spots: relating pattern development to ecology in felids. Proc. R. Soc. B 278: 1373-1380.



Meet the Author
Mark Elbroch is Director of the Puma Program for Panthera, a US-based non-profit that conducts science and conservation action to promote wild cat conservation worldwide. He has contributed to puma research in Idaho, Colorado, California, Wyoming, Mexico, Washington and Chile. He earned his PhD at the University of California, Davis, where his dissertation research focused on puma ecology in Patagonia in the presence of endangered humeul deer. He has authored/coauthored 10 books on natural history (http://www.amazon.com/Mark-Elbroch/e/B001ILHI96) and numerous scientific articles published in peer-review journals.