Column: Winter’s silent stalkers
February 2, 2013
It’s a quiet winter afternoon after a fresh snowfall. The air is still and the world outside appears as though it has been put on pause. Animals rest under a blanket of snow; deer browse on dusted sage brush.
For the moment, there is calm and peace. In the distance crouched low, hidden behind the dense sagebrush, a predator patiently waits.
As the deer casually forage, their ears flick, listening for danger, always ready to retreat. The predator watches and waits for the unknowing prey to make their way closer. The sense of calm is false; this scene is spilling over with tension and anticipation.
Minutes turn to hours. The predator still waits, frozen in stillness, the prey within reach. The predator, without disturbing the scene, now perches above the unaware deer on a rock, sights set on one, ready for the perfect moment to pounce.
And then, quiet turns to terror and chaos as the powerful animal bounds from the rock with precision and grace, killing his prey cleanly, a casualty of one. The rest escape. The mountain lion now can gorge on its success and satisfaction for days.
The mountain lion is known by many names – cougar, puma and panther, to name a few. However, this stealthy and powerful hunter cannot be mistaken.
The largest of all Colorado cats, adults can grow to be up to 6 feet long and weigh 130 pounds or more. They are active year-round and have the largest geographic range of any American native mammal other than humans. They are, to put it simply, impressive animals.
Over the course of millions of years, Felis concolor has evolved into an almost perfect predator. Its sharp senses, muscular stature and extreme adaptability make it an ideal predator.
Recognized as the most elite of carnivores, almost all of its features are related to the way it detects and catches prey. They have extraordinary vision, spanning 287 degrees. Their depth perception is very sensitive, with a range of 50 to 80 feet, critical for an animal that stalks its prey.
Although very little research has been done on hearing in mountain lions, it is known that they can hear frequencies in the ultrasonic range and are able to isolate these sounds to detect their prey.
They have a keen sense of touch, as well. Their whiskers help them determine exactly where the prey is so that they can accurately inflict the killing bite.
In addition to acute senses, a mountain lion’s anatomy and physiology supports its role as a hunter. The majority of its body weight is muscle and tough tissue called sinew. A relatively small portion is made up of bone and organs. Their long legs, flexible backbone and heavy tail provide balance and maneuverability in rugged terrain. They have been known to leap 45 feet horizontally and 15 feet vertically due to the fact that their rear legs are longer than the front, an adaptation that proves valuable in attacking prey.
With this muscular build, the mountain lion is fast, but because of its small lungs, the distance it can cover at full stride is limited and they prefer to catch their prey off-guard, rather than chase it down. The result of its many adaptations is a silent approach, quick attack and efficient kill.
Their talent as silent stalkers have unfairly earned them a reputation in American folklore as a vicious cat that descends from the mountains to drag helpless victims into the darkness of the night.
However, it is rare that mountain lions will attack humans. Their shy and secretive nature gives them a mysterious disposition.
And though you may think that you have never crossed paths with a mountain lion, it’s more likely that this curious cat has seen you.
Gina Garrett is the education grants officer-special events coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center. She had the chance to admire a mountain lion from a distance in the Saguaro Desert, leaving her in awe of this amazing animal.