As the rising sun chases away the glittering stars, a slinking figure moves within the shadows of the trees with grace born only of felines. A small herd of mule deer feed in an adjacent clearing, oblivious to the impending danger. Then, with a flurry of action, the cat rushes from its hiding place amidst the shadows, toward a yearling buck feeding near the tree line. The buck turns to flee when he realizes the danger, but with a great leap the cat is upon him. Within a split second the buck lies limply on the ground, its neck broken.
Many deer have met their demise in a similar fashion. Mountain lions, also known as cougars, are among the most splendid hunters in North America. As the naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton wrote, the mountain lion is “built with [all] the maximum power, speed, and endurance that can be jammed into his 150 pounds of lithe and splendid beasthood, his daily routine is a march of stirring athletic events that not another creature, in America at least, can hope to equal.” Indeed, mountain lions have made vertical jumps of 15 feet and horizontal leaps of 45 feet, and one once cleared a 9 foot fence while carrying a sheep in its mouth.
Because of their amazing physical abilities, mountain lions are able to prey upon large animals. Their most common prey are ungulates, or hoofed animals, such as deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and even moose. However, in the summer when ungulate herds are widely scattered, mountain lions add rabbits, birds, porcupines, squirrels, raccoons, rats, and even grasshoppers to their diet. The hunting prowess of the mountain lion is best realized by comparing the body weights of predator and prey. When deer are not available, the lion can kill elk or moose that are six or seven times as large as itself.
Contrary to popular belief, mountain lions do not lurk in the treetops waiting to ambush a passerby. Cougars hunt on the ground using stealth and speed to ambush their prey from behind. They are classified as “stalking predators” rather than a “pursuit predator” such as wolves. When a cougar detects potential prey, it stalks in slow motion as close as it can. Then, in two or three lightning-quick bounds, it catches its prey. Using its arsenal of teeth, claws and strength, it takes its victim down. A fatal bite below the base of the skull that results in a broken neck is their preferred method of killing. Although the mountain lion may hit a sprint of up to 40 miles per hour, it has little stamina and must catch its prey within a few bounds or give up.
Despite its skills, a successful stalk is often preceded by many failures. Perhaps only one in every 10-15 attacks is successful. Young mountain lions usually remain with their mothers for almost two years, learning the tricks of the trade and practicing their moves and timing. However, even with its mother’s tutelage, a young lion’s hunting abilities are far from perfect. It takes many years of trial and error, and even then more than one lion has been found dead with puncture wounds on its head or throat where it had impaled itself on the antlers of its prey.
As for lion attacks on humans, most are instigated by young male lions that have not fed for some time. If you ever find yourself being attacked or stalked by a lion, the best defense is direct confrontation. Do not run, for that encourages the lion’s chase response. Instead, face the cougar squarely and make yourself as big as possible by standing on a log or rock and holding your arms in the air.
The awesome abilities of mountain lions combined with their beauty make them one of Montana’s most magnificent wildlife species. Although their secretive behavior may prevent us from ever seeing one, we can be sure that they are out there, lurking among the shadows and watching.
'Field Notes' is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.