The Mountain Lion’s Hunting Behavior (Explained)

Mountain lions are some of America’s most successful predators. A big part of that is thanks to their impressive hunting abilities. Aside from being skillful hunters, their instincts allow them to adapt and make the most of their forested and mountainous homes.

All mountain lions also boast impressive jumping abilities, keen night vision, and stealthy movements that all help them to be successful hunters. Besides their natural abilities, their behavior is highly adaptable, letting them make the most out of each prey. 

How Do Mountain Lions Hunt?

Mountain lions work primarily as ambush predators, meaning that instead of chasing down prey, these big cats prefer to let their game come to them. 

They use their stealthy movements and the forested environment to find a hiding place where they can wait until a deer or elk gets close. Mountain lions can climb on top of rocks or trees, hide in bushes, or even bury themselves under a pile of leaves and dirt. 

These powerful cats then pounce on the prey (usually from behind or from above) and knock them off their feet. They will then try to immobilize the target as quickly as possible before it has a chance to run away.

How Do Mountain Lions Find Their Prey?

The scariest part about mountain lions isn’t their sharp claws or teeth (though those are pretty scary too); it’s their intelligence. They know how to track deer and figure out where they can find them.

These big cats often stick to forested areas where they can remain unseen and wait until their prey comes to feed. They can even alter their ambush spots depending on the time of year.

  • Winter: Mountain lions spend more time hunting in lower elevations, where deer will search for food without the snow getting in the way.
  • Summer: During warm months, mountain lions will stick to high ridges or mountains where deer will be due to the cooler temperature.

Do Mountain Lions Stalk Their Prey For Long?

There is no upper limit to the amount of time a mountain lion will follow a potential meal. They could follow the same deer for hours before finally striking once they get a chance. Usually, they will make their move when their target lowers their guard, such as to eat or drink.

Do Mountain Lions Hunt Alone Or In Groups?

Unlike their African counterparts (with whom they’re actually not very closely related), mountain lions do not live in groups. Instead, they are solitary animals that sleep, eat, and hunt alone. They don’t even, particularly like other mountain lions for that matter! 

Mountain lions are very territorial, with their territory stretching 100 square miles, and any other cougars they find there are seen as intruders. 

The only times you will see mountain lions hunting together is if it’s a female with her cubs, but this only lasts until her young are big enough to fend for themselves.

Do Both Male and Female Mountain Lions Hunt?

Yes, since mountain lions are solitary, each cat has to hunt for itself regardless of gender. You can find both male and female mountain lions on the hunt for food.

It is doubly vital for females to be able to hunt since they are the ones who raise their cubs. That means they also have to find food for their babies as well as themselves until the cubs learn to hunt for themselves.

Might Mountain Lions Chase Their Prey?

While these big cats prefer to ambush their prey quickly, they can also chase them down when necessary. Cougars can move at impressive speeds of up to 40 miles an hour for short distances, meaning many animals are hard-pressed to outrun them.

That lightning-fast speed is also why many safety guides are against attempting to run from a mountain lion. Running away triggers their instinct to give chase, and if they do, you won’t get far.

What cougars have in speed, they lack stamina. They can only maintain their top speed for a few seconds and will tire quickly. That means they either need to catch their prey in that window or give up the chase. For that reason, mountain lions prefer the element of surprise.

At What Age Do Juvenile Mountain Lions Start Hunting?

For the first few months of their life, newborn mountain lions depend on their mothers for survival. They don’t know how to hunt, and their bodies are still developing. However, juvenile mountain lions can begin hunting with their mothers after half a year. These growing cats will focus primarily on small things such as rabbits and squirrels. 

They will continue to learn and hunt together with their mothers until they reach two years old. By that point, juvenile mountain lions typically begin venturing away from their mothers and hunting independently. 

At What Time Of Day Do Mountain Lions Hunt?

Although mountain lions can be seen throughout the day, they are nocturnal, so their peak active hours are during the night. They most often hunt around dusk and dawn because this is when they have the greatest advantage and the most opportunity to find food.

The Night Provides Plenty of Prey

Hunting after nightfall corresponds to when most of their prey are out and about. The most common animals these felines go after are:

  • Elk
  • Deer
  • Foxes
  • Coyotes
  • Bighorn Sheep
  • Juvenile Moose
  • Cattle

Many animals, such as elk, deer, and foxes, are nocturnal. Others like bighorn sheep and bison are diurnal but can be active at night from time to time.

So the evening is when many of these animals feed or search for water. That means this is when the mountain lions have the best chance of encountering their prey. 

Although it might seem wiser to hunt when these animals are asleep, that is easier said than done. Deer often hide away when sleeping in secluded dens, making them hard to find by mountain lions. 

There Is A Better Environment for Hunting At Night

Secondly, the night works best for these felines’ hunting habits. As ambush predators, they depend on surprise to catch a meal. Night offers the best opportunities to remain hidden, especially to animals who lack good night vision.

In contrast, mountain lions have excellent night vision, which allows them to see just as well as during the day. So if a mountain loin finds something like a juvenile moose wandering around at night, these big cats will have the advantage since they can spot the bison long before the bison spots them.

How Do Mountain Lions Take Down Their Prey?

Cougars rely on surprise to take down their prey. Once an animal is close enough, these big cats pounce on them, using their powerful hind legs to propel them forward. 

Mountain lions prefer to strike from behind, preventing the animal from fighting back and knocking them off balance so they can’t run away. Once on the ground, mountain lions try to disable their prey by targeting vital parts such as the windpipe or spine.

Will Mountain Lions Strangle Their Prey?

Strangulation is one of the mountain lions’ favorite methods of bringing down animals. When attacking, mountain lions will go for the throat and windpipe because they want to prevent their prey from running away or fighting back. 

For smaller animals, the force can be strong enough to paralyze them outright, preventing a struggle. For larger animals like deer, even if the attack won’t take them out, it prevents their prey from calling for help and severely weakens them. 

Do Mountain Lions Play With Their Food Like Cats Do?

No sources suggest mountain lions play with their prey, and that is because they can’t afford to toy with them. 

Although fast, mountain lions don’t have the stamina for a prolonged chase, so if the animal they’re stalking gets away, they can kiss their meal goodbye. 

Unlike their larger, African cousins who chase down their meals, mountain lions rely on ambushes, and the key to that is speed and surprise. 

These fierce cats must take down their prey quickly and efficiently if they want to eat. If they don’t manage to disable their prey quickly, it gives the other animal a chance to fight back, call for help, or run away.

How Do Mountain Lions Eat Their Prey?

Once a mountain lion manages to take down an animal, it can begin eating. These big cats consume 8 to 10 pounds of meat daily, so they are not shy about stuffing their faces with meat.

Compared to smaller predators, mountain lions have a much stronger bite, allowing them to break apart bones. This powerful bite enables cougars to devour bones instead of eating around them. This method also allows them to access the nutritious bone marrow inside.

In the case of organs, mountain lions have mixed feelings towards them. They tend to ignore some organs such as digestive tracts and even go as far as to remove them and place them away from the carcass while they eat.

They will, however, eagerly devour other organs like the heart, spleen, and kidneys which are rich in blood as these are a source of Vitamin A.

Do Mountain Lions Save Food For Later?

Like humans, mountain lions aren’t ones to let good food go to waste. If they don’t finish a meal themselves, these clever felines will save it for later rather than allowing other animals to take it. 

Deer are big animals and can provide enough meat to last a mountain lion for multiple feedings. After getting their fill, they will drag their kill to a secluded spot and bury it to prevent other animals from eating it. By doing this, these resourceful cats can continue eating from the same kill for up to 10 days without having to hunt.

Author: Quade Ong

Hello there, my name is Quade. I have been a writer for three years but an animal lover for over two decades. I grew up in one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, which has given me the blessing of seeing all sorts of beautiful animals. Now I strive to learn not just about the animals I am from, but those all over the world!

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