Mistaken Mountain Lion Sightings Have Major Consequences
- Author: Sarah Czarnecki
- Publication Date: February 04, 2022
Amazing! You just saw a mountain lion on your security camera!
Or did you?
Reported mountain lion sightings are on the rise, but more often than not, it’s a case of mistaken identity. And incorrect identification can lead to some serious ramifications.
When animals are mis-identified as mountain lions (aka pumas, cougars, or panthers), there’s an increased chance of conflict when we seek out these animals either out of curiosity, fear, or means of control. Human-puma conflict puts the puma population in danger, raises the odds of negative interaction, and can eventually damage our fragile ecosystem.
Treating puma sightings with skepticism and learning the difference between lookalikes is the first line of defense when protecting this crucial species.
Why do people see mountain lions?
With the increased use of home security cameras like Nest or Ring, people are picking up more and more wildlife on film. Some of this footage truly does feature mountain lions, but The Mountain Lion Foundation estimates that up to 90% of these sightings are false alarms. This is backed up by the Bay Area Puma Project’s sighting map, where there’s only a sprinkling of probable and confirmed pumas among the unverified sightings.
Security footage and nighttime trailcam videos are notoriously grainy, too, so it can be hard to be sure what you’re seeing at all. And because mountain lions are such secretive animals, they’re often very far away when viewed with the naked eye.
If the videos are unclear and they’re hard to spot, why, then, are people seeing mountain lions at all?
Under certain conditions, pumas can look like other animals. Bobcats, large dogs, deer, and even house cats can be confused for cougars – and all of those animals are much more common.
One of the biggest reasons people make this error is simply fear. If you were out hiking and saw a large animal, or saw the shadow of something big right outside your home, you might feel frightened. In this mindset, adrenaline can warp your perception, making dangers look bigger and more intimidating than they actually are. That’s how your imagination could conjure an apex predator, when in reality, it was just your neighbor’s friendly labrador.
But because of urban sprawl, there really are more encounters with humans and mountain lions. We encroach on their habitats and recreate in their territories. Our expansion fragments their habitats, and pumas have little choice but to cross paths with humans. For this reason, we need to remember to give them space and show them respect – not fear.
How do false sightings impact pumas?
Making a mistake when identifying mountain lions has a much greater impact than just confusion.
When a puma is reported to the authorities, word spreads quickly. Some of this narrative evolves into fear-mongering, which in turn promotes “public safety” efforts. These reactive efforts tend not to inspire thoughtful protections like making property uninviting for wildlife or learning tolerance. Instead, some people will go out of their way to “control” predator populations if there’s any hint that a mountain lion was in the area. Others will use the sighting as an opportunity to seek out the animal for trophy hunting.
Even if citizens don’t set out on a lion hunt, the undercurrent of danger positions mountain lions as the enemy – as something that threatens our livelihoods.
All of these knee-jerk reactions damage conservation efforts. Healthy mountain lion populations are key to our ecosystem. Without these essential species in place, biodiversity is weakened. Deer can become overpopulated, and fragile plant species are put in danger. Every ecosystem relies on a healthy relationship between predator and prey.
By doing our best to understand what makes mountain lions unique, we can help keep them – and our ecosystem – safer.
Learn the lookalikes
- Bobcats - Bobcats are more populous and are found in more regions than mountain lions. Identify bobcats by their spotty coats, famously short tails, and smaller size. Bobcats are only a little larger than a house cat.
- Domestic Cats - Orange house cats, especially overfed ones seen from a distance, can be confused for pumas. This cat was photographed at such an odd angle, it had people convinced it was a puma.
- Dogs, Coyotes, & Wolves - Large dogs can be confused for mountain lions, especially if they have long, smooth tails. Wolves are a little smaller than mountain lions, but are much furrier and tend to have a grayer coat.
- Deer - Both deer and mountain lions can stand quite tall and be close in color, but similarities end there. Unlike pumas, deer have long spindly legs – and the antlers should be a dead giveaway.
- Lynx - Lynx are very similar to bobcats in many ways, but have longer legs and larger footprints. Their tracks can be easily confused with pumas’, which can be close in size.
- Bears - Aside from being large and brown, mountain lions and bears have very few shared attributes. Learn how to identify bears in your area with this guide.
Recognize key mountain lion features
- Size - Mountain lions are the biggest cat species in North America. They can weigh up to 200 pounds, are around 5 feet long, stand over two feet at the shoulder. Unlike many lookalikes, mountain lions have a lean, muscular body and don’t appear fluffy.
- Color - Adults are generally tawny brown all over, but have a light-colored belly. There are some dark markings on the muzzle and ears as well. Juvenile mountain lions are small and spotted, so be careful not to confuse them with bobcats.
- Tails - The two-foot tail is the biggest giveaway. Only mountain lions have long ropey tails with black tips. They carry these signature tails in a wide, low U-shape.
- Tracks & Sign - Pumas have retractable claws, so if you see their tracks in soft dirt or snow, you probably won’t see claw marks. Tracks are large, up to 4” in length and 4.5” in width. Bobcats, domestic cats, and canine species all have much smaller tracks.
- Behavior - Unlike African lions, mountain lions are solitary animals. They’re also extremely discreet. Unless you’ve crossed paths with a mother and her cubs, a puma will do its best to stay out of your way and unseen.
- Location - Pumas have enormous territories, but they don’t live everywhere in the United States. Most pumas in the United States are in the west, with pockets of habitats scattered in other parts of the country. Check this map to see if you share territory with mountain lions.
Whether the animal you’ve spotted is truly a mountain lion or not, remember you’re in their territory. It’s our responsibility to treat our wild neighbors with respect and kindness.
Fear drives us to take rash action, so we ask officials to consider their phrasing when informing the public about wild animals. A recent potential sighting in Daly City, CA had officers warning the public to “Use caution leaving your house.”
That’s extreme advice, especially when we know mountain lions naturally live in California. Pumas have no reason to interact with humans, and tend to do everything in their power to avoid us. We are much more dangerous to them than they are to us.
Many of us do share our homes with these majestic wild cats, so it’s on us to take the simple steps to coexist in peace. Make your home an unpleasant place for pumas and their prey, use caution when hiking or recreating outdoors, and always stay aware of your surroundings. In the extremely unlikely event that you do encounter a puma, learn how to stay safe. Stay calm, don’t run, and slowly leave the area. Make noise and attempt to intimidate the cat to drive it away.
If you do see a mountain lion in the wild or on video, we encourage you to report it to the Bay Area Puma Project! Researchers need citizen scientists and volunteers like you to support conservation of these beautiful animals.