By the featured picture alone, can you identify which wild cat owns these piercing green eyes? You’d be pretty equipped in the wilderness if you answered mountain lion, cougar, puma, catamount, or deer tiger.
There are a lot of possible answers, really. And they’re all correct because they’re all just pertaining to the same animal! In fact, the cat holds the Guinness record for being the mammal with the most names.
This popularity should help us easily recognize the large, tawny predator. But does it, unfortunately, cause confusion among people living across the wild cat’s wide distribution instead?
Join Floofmania as we answer this query and show you some animals you might confuse for the mighty cougar.
The Mountain Lion’s Big Cat Lookalikes
Table of Contents
Cats, ranging in size from the tiger to your beloved pet cat, all belong to the same Felidae family. These mammals have the most diverse coat colors out of all the terrestrial meat-eating animals. Humans have initially differentiated these cats by size, categorizing them as big or small.
In reality, however, taxonomists separated the animals into groups that could and couldn’t roar. They originally concluded that only large cats could roar because of their elastic hyoid bones. Small cats like the mountain lion could only purr and not roar due to the bony hyoids in their throats.
But recent studies have shown that the specific characteristic that accurately categorizes these felines is their larynxes (the voice boxes). To be fair, their larynxes are anatomically held in place by their hyoid apparatuses.
So the “big” cats of the Pantherinae subfamily have long and fleshy vocal folds in their larynxes which would stretch and eventually create the infamous roar. On the other hand, the Felinae subfamily’s “small” cats have a simpler vocal fold structure that only allows them to create a purring sound.
Aside from sound, we will now compare the mountain lion to the Pantherinae big cats. Let’s find out how the cougars fare in terms of appearance and traits.
Lions are the said “Kings of the Jungle”. But their female and maneless counterparts look very similar to mountain lions. Judging by appearance alone, it is hard to tell a lioness apart from a cougar by their same tan-colored coats with mirror-like white fur markings.
Early European explorers, including Christopher Columbus himself, even thought that the two wild cats were of the same species, but they were and are not. A mountain lion is part of the Felinae subfamily. It is more closely related to a household cat than a real lion (Pantherinae subfamily).
On a closer look, a lioness is still bigger and taller than a mountain lion. A female lion can even weigh twice as much as a male cougar.
But perhaps the safest way to identify which one of them you are looking at when you encounter one is to check where you are. The two twin-like mammals live in very different portions of the world.
Here is a table enumerating the differences between the two large cats:
|Scientific Name||Puma concolor||Panthera leo|
|Weight||60 to 200 pounds||260 to 316 pounds|
|Height (Shoulder to Ground)||2.5 feet||3.6 feet|
|Head||Smaller, more rounded, and features a shorter muzzle||Larger, flatter, and has a longer muzzle|
|Tail||2 feet in length, rope-like, and black-tipped||Longer than 2 feet, thinner, black-tipped but tufted|
|Range||North AmericaCentral AmericaSouth America||Sub-Saharan AfricaGujarat region of India|
|Behavior||Both are active at night and dawn (Nocturnal and Crepuscular)||Active during the day (Diurnal)|
Mountain lions are American natives. Their territories are even so vast that they occupy up to 28 countries. But jaguars are the largest cats living in the Americas, so they are bigger than cougars and have more muscular shoulders that make them powerful hunters.
Their black-spotted and rosette-patterned coats are also obviously different from a cougar’s uniform-toned fur. And despite their size and coat pattern differences, both cats have the same shoulder heights.
It makes sense then to ask if cougars and jaguars ever come face to face in the wild. The short answer is yes, but it rarely happens. While you may say that the lion will most likely end up as the jaguar’s meal when they meet each other, it doesn’t end up this way, quite possibly as much or not at all.
Researchers have observed that in areas where both of these wild cats live, in South America specifically, they have learned to coexist with each other.
Cougars are flexible and more agile in terms of having a more balanced and lighter body build than jaguars. At the same time, mountain lions also know how to respect the 1,500 pounds per square inch (P.S.I.) bite of a jaguar’s powerful jaw that can crush the skulls of their prey.
Thus, both of these cats know they’re better off giving each other space to hunt as ambush apex predators.
Leopards look pretty similar to jaguars, and it can take time to differentiate them from one another. One helpful trick is to take a close look at their fur. The leopard’s spots are much smaller and condensed. The rosettes in its fur also don’t have central spots inside that the jaguar’s coat has.
Rosettes are rose-like formations or markings that you can find on the skin or skin covering of animals: both jaguars and leopards have them on their sides. No two cats have the same rosette pattern. They help them to stay safe from their predators and to effectively hunt their prey by camouflaging into their environment.
Leopards are also smaller and even have comparable measurements to mountain lions. Here is a bullet list of differences and similarities between a cougar and a leopard:
- Numbers: Leopards have similar weights and measurements (both length and height) to mountain lions, including their two-foot tails.
- Coat Colors: Mountain lions have a light-brown to red coat color, while leopards have spotted dark yellow to gold fur.
- Tails: Leopards have white-tipped tails with incomplete black bands made with spots. On the other hand, cougars have tails with unbanded black tips.
One of the many names that people call a mountain lion is a “panther“. And this may be where the misconception starts. People start to look for and insist that there is indeed a “black panther” or, in this case, a black mountain lion.
To clarify, no such animal or subspecies of the mountain lion with excess melanin or black coat pigments exists. Scientists have not recorded any cougar matching a description of a black panther or have ever called the cat as such once.
But this fur color variation does indeed occur in the mountain lion’s big cat relatives: the jaguars and leopards and are the real black panthers. Melanism is a genetic mutation in some animals that causes their spots to disappear and blend in with their now black-colored fur visually – but not in cougars.
So a black panther isn’t just a fictional comic book hero or a much-awaited movie title, after all.
Also known as (A.K.A.): Ounce
Snow leopards of Central and South Asia live in the cold and harsh Himalayan mountains. And while mountain lions live in the Americas, they also thrive in the snow during the winter season.
Although mountain lions are larger than snow leopards, they have similar adaptations to the cold. For example, both have small, rounded ears to minimize heat loss. They also both have large paws that help them traverse the snow.
The spotted, cuddly-looking snow leopards are even fuzzier and stockier, enabling them to blend well with their snowy environment. Most importantly, both cats surprisingly can’t roar. This fact is interesting as ounces are closely related to tigers and are under the big roaring cats of the Pantherinae subfamily.
If you recall, earlier, we stated that big cats could roar because of their long and elastic vocal folds. But snow leopards have shorter (0.35 inches) vocal folds than their cousins (longer than 0.75 inches). So the ounces with the long, bushy tails, which they use as blankets in the cold, are the only purring big cats.
A.K.A.: Mainland Clouded Leopard
Two genera make up the Pantherinae or big cat subfamily. The five earlier-mentioned big cats were all part of the Panthera genus. The other (Neofelis) genus is where the clouded leopards (as well as the Sundra Clouded Leopards) belong.
The Mainland clouded leopards have large, gray, and irregular blotches that look like clouds which the cougars don’t have. And even though mountain lions are twice as large as them, the leopards are also called the “modern-day saber-toothed cats” because of their large canine teeth.
Fortunately, they only inhabit the dense forests of the Himalayas’ foothills through mainland Southeast Asia and into South China.
Interestingly, both cats are excellent tree climbers. They both use their 2 to 3 feet long tails to jump up and down heights and deftly balance themselves to avoid falls or injuries.
Here is a table summarizing the mentioned big cats’ weights and measurements:
|Mountain Lion||60 to 200 pounds||9 feet||2.5 feet|
|Lioness||260 to 316 pounds||9 feet||3.6 feet|
|Jaguar||80 to 340 pounds||8.3 feet||2.5 feet|
|Leopard||60 to 198 pounds||9 feet||2 feet|
|Black Panther||Either Jaguar or Leopard’s weight (60 to 340 pounds)||Either Jaguar or Leopard’s length (8.3 to 9 feet)||Either Jaguar or Leopard’s height (2 to 2.5 feet)|
|Snow Leopard||50 to 121 pounds||8.3 feet||1.8 feet|
|Clouded Leopard||25 to 51 pounds||6.5 feet||1.6 feet|
The Mountain Lion’s Small Cat Relatives
The Felinae subfamily includes the 34 cat species within the ten genera. These felines are the “small”, purring cat family members.
Mountain lions are the largest members of the small cat subfamily. In fact, they are the 4th biggest cats in the world. Subsequently, the cougars also have the longest hind legs in the entire Felidae family, which amazingly allows them to jump to an average of 18 feet off the ground.
We will now compare the cougars to their cousins, starting with the Jaguarundi and Cheetah – the mountain lion’s closest relatives.
The three of them (mountain lion, jaguarundi, and cheetah) evolved from a common ancestor 5 to 9 million years ago. Together, they form the Puma lineage and share a lot of features.
Yet, it is essential to note that lineage isn’t a term or unit that biologists use to identify animals taxonomically. Rather, it is a term to collectively refer to a group of closely related species according to evolution.
A.K.A.: Weasel Cat
Despite being their closest relatives, jaguarundis are only a fraction of a mountain lion’s physique. The weasel cat is the smallest member of their Puma lineage. It only weighs twice as much as a domestic cat.
More importantly, both cats reside in the Central and South Americas. They also have a plain-colored coat, with the smaller jaguarundi resembling the cougar’s gray to tawny red fur morphs. Jaguarundis can even have melanistic or black-colored coats, while mountain lions can’t.
The most apparent difference between a cheetah and a mountain lion is the former’s 2,000 evenly spaced 1.2 to 2-inch spots in its coat. Each cheetah has its own distinct spot pattern that serves as its unique identification. It also helps them to camouflage in Africa and Central Iran’s tall grasses when they hunt.
The cheetahs and the mountain lions are the only “big” small cats in their group. But even so, the cougar is still larger and longer in body weight and length than the cheetah.
Unsurprisingly, cheetahs have a taller shoulder height than cougars as they are the fastest land animals. They can run from 50 to 80 miles per hour, while the lion can only reach 40 mph in short running bursts. Still a pretty massive feat for the mountain lion, I say.
Moreover, all three members of their Puma lineage share these same characteristics and each makes them successful species on their own:
- Have short and small heads
- Have long, ropey or tube-like tails that can measure up to 2/3rds of their body length
- Have slender bodies with long hind legs
A.K.A.: Red Lynx
Bobcats are the most similar wild cat relatives of mountain lions in terms of behavioral traits. They are both solitary, elusive to humans, and nocturnal or prefer to hunt at night.
Physically, they differ in a lot of aspects which include:
- Size: The bobcat is just a third of how much and how long a mountain lion weighs, stands, and measures from its nose to its tail.
- Tail: The mountain lion has a long, 2 feet rope-like tail, while the bobcat has a short, 8-inch bobbed tail.
- Color: Bobcats tend to have a black-mottled, darker brown coat. On the other hand, mountain lions tend to have an unspotted and unstriped solid gray to tawny fur color.
- Tufts: Mountain lions also don’t have tufts on their face, unlike bobcats that have them on their ears and cheeks.
But these characteristics could be challenging to see and distinguish at a distance and even more on grainy trail cam footage. And this is the reason why many people often confuse and mistake mountain lions for bobcats.
A.K.A.: Canada Lynx, North American Lynx
Mountain lions are sometimes confused with the Lynx species. Of the four members of their genus, the Canadian lynx appears to be the most similar to the bobcat.
The differences mentioned above between a mountain lion and a bobcat still apply to the North American Lynx. The cougar is still much bigger than the 5-inch-tailed Canadian lynx.
Interestingly, Canadian lynxes and mountain lions have one similarity in spite of their differences. Unlike the bobcat, the Canadian Lynx has a uniform, unspotted, and unmarked coat like the cougar. But the lynx has stone-colored fur, while the mountain lion has a gray to light-brown coat color.
A.K.A.: Desert Lynx, Gazelle Cats
The caracal got its name from their long, erect ear tufts, while the mountain lion doesn’t have any on its rounded ears. But its solid reddish coat looks identical to a cougar’s same-red-hued fur.
Both wild cats also have white-colored underbellies and jaws, as well as black-tipped tails. However, the desert lynx has a shorter tail than the cougar.
The desert lynx and the mountain lion are both considered acrobats in the animal world. The gazelle cat can leap up to 9.8 feet into the air to snatch a bird. On the other hand, the cougar actually holds the Guinness record for being the mammal with the highest jump (23 feet) from a standstill!
Asian Golden Cat
A.K.A.: Temminck’s Cat, Asiatic Golden Cat, Rock Cat, Fire Cat
The Asian golden cats are famously known as rock cats in China. While the people in Thailand and Myanmar regard them as fire cats, as legend says that carrying a strand of their hair will protect the bearer from tiger attacks.
An Asiatic golden cat weighs 2 to 3X more than an average household cat. Their species are the 2nd largest felines in Southeast Asia, particularly in sub-tropical and tropical forests. However, the Temminck cat is only half a mountain lion’s size.
The smaller cat’s coat colors can also come in red, brown, gray, and black. When its fur doesn’t have markings, its grayish or tawny hair can resemble a cougar’s with its white underbelly.
But a striped and spotted coat combined with its white and black facial markings will be more identical to an ocelot or a leopard cat.
African Golden Cat
The golden cats of West and Central Africa are some of the rarest wild cats in the world. As a result, researchers know so little about these cats. The IUCN, or the International Union for Conservation of Nature, even red-listed their decreasing population as vulnerable.
These African cats are reclusive to humans, like mountain lions. But due to human encroachment, their tropical forest habitats are now being converted into roads. It, in turn, makes them accessible for human poaching even though some laws against hunting them exist.
An African golden cat weighs just twice as much as a domestic cat. It can be spotted all over its body, in just its belly or inner legs, or not at all. An unmarked and uniform grayish or reddish-brown coat color is like a cougar’s fur in addition to their same small, rounded ears.
(video about the Bay Cat here)
A.K.A.: Borneo Bay Cat, Bornean Cat, Bornean Red Cat, Bornean Marbled Cat
The Bay Cat is perhaps the wild cat that beats out the African golden cat’s reclusiveness and rarity. The animal is so secretive that researchers rarely have a live specimen to study. Even camera traps have trouble capturing the elusive cat, so there is little-known information about its biology.
Bay cats are also endemic or only live in Borneo Island’s tropical forests in Malaysia and Indonesia. In a way, their reclusive nature might be their way of protecting their endangered numbers and keeping their species alive in the wild.
In the few genetic tests the scientists could get from them, they found that these small cats were closely related to the Asian golden cats. They are, however, a much smaller, bright chestnut coat-colored version of them.
Aside from their smaller size, their tails that taper or thins towards the end differentiates them from other cats. Mountain lions, on the other hand, have thick, non-tapering tubular tails.
Domestic Cat (Savannah Cat)
It’s not unusual for people to mistake household cats for mountain lions, especially when it’s dark outside. The lack of point of reference when you spot a four-legged animal in the woods or your yard might also trick your brain into thinking that it’s a cougar you’re looking at when it isn’t.
But in early 2022, a neighborhood in Metro Vancouver alerted the police that they saw a mountain lion in broad daylight. The authorities responded to the tip but found a different cat instead – a domestic one.
To the caller’s credit, the animal was not a usual pet breed nor the one you expect to see in the metropolis – it was a huge Savannah Cat. The cat was still technically a pet and escaped its owner’s yard. But, it was a hybrid that resulted from crossing an African Serval wild cat and a Siamese domestic cat.
Although the breed is tamed and even dog-like in its playfulness, the exotic appearance of its parent is still pretty evident. Savannahs inherited the serval’s long legs, spotted and striped coat, and circular, large ears. These traits make them some of the world’s largest and most unique pet cats.
These are the small cats mentioned in this section and their corresponding measurements:
|Mountain Lion||60 to 200 pounds||9 feet||2.5 feet|
|Jaguarundi||8 to 20 pounds||3.3 feet||1.1 feet|
|Cheetah||46 to 159 pounds||7.5 feet||3 feet|
|Bobcat||13 to 30 pounds||3 feet||1.8 feet|
|Canadian Lynx||18 to 31 pounds||2.9 feet||2 feet|
|Caracal||18 to 42 pounds||4.4 feet||1.6 feet|
|Asian Golden Cat||20 to 35 pounds||5.2 feet||1.8 feet|
|African Golden Cat||12 to 35 pounds||4.8 feet||1.8 feet|
|Bay Cat||6.6 to 8.8 pounds||3.5 feet||1 foot|
|Domestic Cat (Savannah Cat)||5.5 to 25 pounds||1.8 feet||1.4 feet|
Other Animals Often Misidentified As Mountain Lions
Before we proceed to the five other animals that often get mistaken as mountain lions, we should go back to the question we asked at the start of the article.
Unfortunately, the various names many people give the American “pseudo” lions do indeed contribute to many cases of confusion and misconception about the wild cat.
In Dr. Mark Elbroch’s experience, a lot of people, including conservation stakeholders, are convinced that each alternative name of the animal refers to another species or subspecies. He had to patiently explain that it was a huge misunderstanding and that all of the names refer to the same mammal!
But even then, the stakeholders argued with him, and it took some time before they accepted the truth.
Hopefully, more people will take the time to educate others and spread facts about the wild cat like him. Doing so will hugely help protect the cougars and their numbers, and sharing this Floofmania article is one way to do it.
Conservation officers or the people who track down animals when you spot them in urban settings would also like to remind people of a few things. They usually give time and opportunity for the cougars to leave the vicinity on their own.
They only try to catch the cougar when it rarely exhibits aggressive behavior towards pets, livestock, and people. When chased, a mountain lion usually hides and ends up on top of a tree. Of course, the officers would have to tranquilize the animal to get it down.
But falling groggily down a couple of feet from a tree and waking up in another area sometime later isn’t a fun experience for anybody at all. The new relocation area might also not be the usual range of the territorial mountain lion and could endanger it instead.
A coyote and a mountain lion are two completely different animals. The former belongs to the dog (Canidae) family, while the latter is a large wild cat (Felidae).
The cougar is a much larger mammal than a coyote. The cat also has small, rounded ears, much longer legs, and bigger, retractable-clawed paws compared to the canid.
Aside from having similar grayish-to-brownish coat colors, a coyote can be misidentified as a mountain lion when it has mange. Affected wild canids like coyotes (and wolves) would have much shorter hair on their bodies. Their then bushy tails would also appear ropey like a cougar’s (as seen in the photo above).
It can understandably be hard to tell a coyote in this condition apart from a cougar. But you have to ensure that you don’t immediately jump to conclusions when you see an animal:
- under poor lighting
- from long distances
- in unideal weather conditions
- or when you just get a glimpse of it while it is passing by or moving quickly.
Domestic Dogs (Yellow Labrador Retriever)
Humans originally bred Labrador Retrievers to hunt and help fishermen catch fish. The lab is even famously known for having a tapering ‘otter-like’ tail that helps them swim efficiently. Today, the breed is a popular option when you’re looking for a companion or a great family dog.
But this popularity among American households might also get the kind-eyed pet in trouble when people misidentify its yellow, unmarked fur as the coat color of a mountain lion.
Despite a yellow lab (or a German Shepherd) ‘s stance of standing on all of their four legs, they have a much different physique than a cougar. These dogs have noticeably less massive shoulder muscles and hindquarters.
Dogs also have a keen sense of smell and even rely heavily on it. Their noses are so powerful that they seem to use them as their superpower. On the other hand, cougars have a poor sense of smell and rely on their different skills and senses in the wild instead.
A.K.A.: American Black Bear, Baribal
Despite its name, a black bear can have a brown coat resembling a mountain lion’s reddish fur. But the bear is much larger and taller than the wild cat.
Both animals also reside in North America. They both live in mountain parklands and open spaces where they could possibly meet, just like these two young ones:
Adults tend to avoid and respect each other as predators in the wild. But the young cougar that probably had just left its mother’s care tries to rile up and disturb the sleepy and hibernating bear cub in the video. Rather than fighting, the encounter eventually turned into a fun play, especially for the mountain lion.
In places like Alabama and Illinois, people mistake the much larger black bear for a mountain lion. Experts recommend using the animal’s tracks to identify the species and to avoid this confusion. The bear has a much larger hindfoot mark (3.5 X 7 inches) and is almost humanlike compared to the cougar’s (3 X 3 inches).
A.K.A.: True Deer
Like the White-Tailed Deer pictured above, the deer is a huge part of the mountain lion’s diet. It is also one of the largest deer species in North and South America, where the cougar also lives.
The chances of spotting a mountain lion in the wild or backyard are slim. They are so slim that people easily mistake them for a deer when they ever see one. Alternatively, it’s becoming more common for people to initially think of deer as cougars, even though the two animals only have a few similarities.
Depending on the season, the deer’s grayish to reddish brown fur resembles the lion’s coat. And while both have four legs, the deer has much thinner, longer legs than the cougar. The ungulate even has hooves; the cat has claws on its paws instead.
A.K.A.: Pekan, Fisher Cat, Black Cat
Fishers are comparable in size to domestic cats. They are, therefore, just a fraction of how much a mountain lion weighs and measures. Compared to cougars, fishers have much darker grizzled brown coats. But both of them have rounded ears and are excellent tree climbers.
Mountain lions are known to prey on fishers, especially males. But fisher cats are aggressive, opportunistic hunters themselves. They are known for their vicious bite and ability to grip and hold on to their victim’s necks as much as possible until they achieve victory.
Researchers even once noted that the fisher could take down a Canadian lynx that is far bigger and larger than them. Who’s to say they won’t try to hunt and take on a mountain lion just for guts when they don’t have another food source at a particular time?
Here are the five animals people misidentify as mountain lions at times and their corresponding measurements:
|Mountain Lion||60 to 200 pounds||9 feet||2.5 feet|
|Coyote||25 to 35 pounds||3.5 feet||1.8 feet|
|Domestic Dog (Labrador Retriever)||55 to 80 pounds||3.5 feet||2.3 feet|
|Black Bear||90 to 550 pounds||6.5 feet||3.4 feet|
|Deer (White-Tailed Deer)||88 to 300 pounds||8.5 feet||3.9 feet|
|Fisher||4 to 13 pounds||3.9 feet||1.4 feet|
Hello! My name is Graciola Galo, but my friends call me “Gra” – so can you! Aside from being a dog lover, my bachelor’s degree in biology has helped me develop a deep appreciation for animals. I look forward to learning more about all kinds of wildlife in every future article I write for Floofmania and I aspire to impart that same awe and wonder to you, too!