It sounds like the vocal equivalent of fingernails running down a chalkboard. Or perhaps it's closer to the sound of screeching brakes when a car slams to a halt. Then again, if you listen to the momentary wail of a house cat after its tail has been stepped on, you may hit the auditory nail on the head.
Pinpointing the precise tonal quality of a cougar's scream is a faulty science since wildlife researchers and laymen alike rarely hear the piercing call. We do know, however, that it sounds exactly like the shriek of a mountain lion, puma and panther. Why do these cats exhibit similar cries? They all share the same species, Felis concolor, but different common names.
The Latin translation of the species name means "solid-colored cat," which sums up its appearance succinctly, but the list of nicknames doesn't end there. Where humans have nicknames like Beth, Betty, Liz, Lilly and Buffy that all refer to the name Elizabeth, you might hear about cougars under the monikers swamp devil, ghost walker, catamount, night crawler, mountain screamer, king cat or deer tiger. Research has uncovered more than three dozen different labels for the North American cat [source: Busch]. The animal owes this abundance of names to its widespread natural habitat that stretches from the southern tip of Argentina to central Canada, and across the United States, coast to coast.
Cougars largely prey on white-tailed deer, although they may eat livestock or pets in more populated areas. They reign at the top of the food chain in their habitats, hunting with the same stalk-and-pounce method as leopards.
Catching sight of a cougar doesn't happen often. The largely solitary animals keep a low profile, although the number of attacks on humans in the United States and Canada has risen since 1990 [source: Kemper]. Due to their elusive nature, wildlife experts can only estimate that around 30,000 live in the American West today. This is a resurgence since their extermination in the Eastern region of the country in the early 20th century [source: Kemper]. When we hear cougars scream sporadically and read about occasional attacks, we're reminded that cougars are alive and well.
Decoding Cougar Noises
The cougar is the largest native cat in North America. Outside of zoos, you won't find any big cat species, such as lions, tigers, jaguars and leopards, roaming the countryside. Surprisingly, cougars are technically small cats, members of the same group as domesticated cats. Their size is comparable to leopards, with adult males weighing around 140 pounds (63.5 kilograms) and measuring 8 feet (2.4 meters) long from tail to nose [source: Federal Wildlife Service].
While these dimensions sound awfully large to be lumped into the same category as your pet kitty, biologists didn't flub the cougar classification. Cougars received the designation because of internal anatomy rather than external. Underneath a small cat's tongue is a bone called the solid hyoid. The solid hyoid attaches to the windpipe and larynx and helps produce the animal's vocalizations. Instead of solid hyoids, large cats have flexible cartilage that can vibrate in that oral space, allowing lions and other big cats to roar [source: Busch]. Small cats can meow, hiss and growl all day, but that solid hyoid prevents them from roaring like the MGM lion.
As small cats with solid hyoids, cougars can't produce a deep roar, but females can out-scream a 2-year-old child who just discovered a heart-pounding fear of clowns at the circus. The cougar scream is a rare, high-pitched noise that rips through the wilderness air and causes hikers to freeze in place. Are those screams warning signs for us to get out of their territory? Like the wolf's howl, these cougar noises serve as forms of long-distance communication. Only females are known to make the screeching call, coinciding with their bodies' preparation for mating [source: Spalding] In human jargon, we'd call that scream a booty call.
For all those ladies out there who hate waiting by the phone for their hunk to call, look to the female cougars for inspiration. The dynamics of cougar mating is more progressive than you might expect from a deer-devouring feline. Female cougars reach sexual maturity at around 2 or 3 years old, giving birth to a litter every other year or so. Since male cougars roam their territories alone, females scream when they are in heat in order to let the males know where they are and that it's time to make some cougar babies.
Although female cougars may have to compete for a mate if their individual territories intersect, they still hold the power for when copulation occurs [source: Busch]. Until she's ready, the males must wait. But once the deed is done, the male cougars return to their solitary habits. The female will establish a den and stay with her offspring for around 15 months before the cubs set off on their own [source: Dewey and Shivaraju].
So if you happen to hear the chilling scream of a cougar in the distance, just think of it as mountain lion mood music -- and head in the opposite direction to avoid being attacked by a randy panther.
Both are spotted and swifty, but leopards and cheetahs have some major differences. Let us know if you can tell them apart at HowStuffWorks.
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More Great Links
- Busch, Robert H. "The Cougar Almanac." Globe Pequot. 2004. (Aug. 19, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=zvaBUahN4RQC
- "California Cougars." Bureau of Land Management. U.S. Department of the Interior. Updated April 26, 2007. (Aug. 19, 2008)http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/prog/wildlife/cougar.html
- Dewey, Tanya and Shivaraju, Anupama. "Puma concolor." Animal Diversity Web. 2003. (Aug. 19, 2008)http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Puma_concolor.html
- "Eastern Cougar." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. October 2005. (Aug. 19, 2008)http://www.fws.gov/Northeast/pdf/ecougar.pdf
- Glavin, Terry. "Cougar Attack!" Canadian Geographic. May/June 2004.
- Kemper, Steve. "Cougars on the Move." Smithsonian Magazine. September 2006. (Aug. 19, 2008)http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/cougars.html
- "Mammals: Mountain Lion (Puma, Cougar)." San Diego Zoo. (Aug. 19, 2008)http://www.sandiegozoo.org/animalbytes/t-puma.html
- Spalding, D.J. "Cougar in British Columbia." British Columbia Fish and Wildlife Branch, Information and Education Section. (Aug. 19, 2008)http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wld/documents/cougar.htm