How cougars find each other in a vast landscape of mountains, raging water, thick forests, and rocky bluffs is one of life’s great mysteries for those of us who study mountain lions. I’ve spent many long hours contemplating this subject, and here’s what I’ve decided: it might be easier than we think.
I’m speculating here, but whereas I once thought cougars couldn’t possibly keep tabs on each other, I now believe they typically know the relative if not exact whereabouts of their neighbors and other individuals that wander through their territories.
Communication between cougars appears to be primarily olfactory. Cougars “scrape” with their hind feet, first with one foot and then the other. They repeat the process several times to create a neat pile of debris and/or soil and parallel swaths of exposed earth (see photo).
Scrapes may be found in isolation, strung along a section of trail where an animal travels, or they may accumulate where multiple animals overlap on the landscape. These scrape sites function like community bulletin boards, perhaps emphasizing dominance, territoriality, temporal time-sharing, and more.
The Search Begins
Receptive females visit scrape sites in search of potential mates, yowling when they discover a recent scrape made by a resident male (see the first video). Female mountain lions exhibit estrus for four to 12 days, during which they are vociferous and receptive. Much of what we know about breeding in mountain lions has only been documented in zoos, so any glimpse of these secretive cats in their courtship rituals is not just lucky, but immensely instructive.
Here, we share some absolutely incredible footage of M85, a wild, free-ranging adult male mountain lion, and a resident female, engaged in courtship rituals. This footage was caught by a particularly well-placed remote camera (meaning we were very lucky), as part of ongoing research led by Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project.
A female cougar in New Mexico was heard caterwauling 10 times in succession for a total of more than 500 vocalizations. I believe it after watching these videos—this female was hardly ever silent, calling for hours on end. Females are said to be especially playful just proceeding and during estrus, and said to be seen batting shrubs, rolling, and constantly soliciting attention from the male. Refer to the second video, in which the female rubs and wiggles beneath M85, who at this point appears tolerant though less than enthused. We caught several hours of footage, during which this female yowls and follows M85 relentlessly.
In typical mating scenarios, the male periodically approaches the female to sniff her posterior and test whether she truly is in estrus. When he tests her scent, he exhibits a flehmen response, recognizable by his facial expression, which resembles an angry, growling lion, yet is completely silent. When he is finally coerced by his partner, they copulate.
Actual mating is brief, lasting a minute or less, but what males lack in individual mating performance, they make up in repetition, mating as many as nine times in an hour and 70 times per day. On another occasion, Jeff Hogan filmed a pair of cougars tracked as part of our research while they copulated for a full 15 minutes without a break. This footage was highlighted in American Cougar, a National Geographic Wild production that first aired in 2011.
For more information on cougar courtship and scent marking, refer to the Peterson Reference Guide to the Behavior of North American Mammals and follow M85 and other cats on our Facebook page.