04. Chickadee Notes

Eastern Cougar in New Brunswick

Eastern CougarIn 1903 notable New Brunswick naturalist William Ganong reviewed the historical evidence for the Cougar or Panther, Felis concolor, in the province and stated that "there is not a solitary authentic record... of either the present or former occurrence of the Panther within the limits of New Brunswick." However, in the winter of 1932 an adult Cougar was shot by a hunter in Kent County. Until recently a photograph of that skin, all that remains, was the only tangible evidence that this elusive cat might occur in New Brunswick. Then in November 1992 scientists identified Cougar hair in an animal dropping associated with possible Cougar tracks discovered near Juniper, Carleton County. This has been accepted by many as convincing evidence that Cougar are still present in New Brunswick. However, it is not possible, solely on the evidence of a few hairs, to separate the eastern race of the Cougar from the 11 other races that range across North America, and the possibility that an escaped captive may have been involved has yet to be ruled out.

...the status of the animal here has long been uncertain and controversial.

Although the Cougar has been protected in the province under the New Brunswick Endangered Species Act since 1976, the status of the animal here has long been uncertain and controversial. Without doubt, the Cougar has always been extremely rare in New Brunswick, but in 1977 wildlife agencies began to document sightings in earnest. Since then there have been more than 150 reported sightings of Cougar in the province that biologists consider credible. Sightings in New Brunswick have been scattered across the province with a concentration in the southeast and very few reported from the extreme northwest. There have been two reports of adults with kittens. Other evidence includes photographs of what appear to be Cougar tail drag-marks and footprints in the snow from the Fundy Park region in 1947, footprints photographed in the Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in 1963, and the fuzzy 1990 videotape taken at Waasis, Sunbury County, of what is perhaps a young Cougar.

Natural History

The population of Cougar that ranged through New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, southern Quebec and southeastern Ontario south to South Carolina and Tennessee has been recognized as a distinct race, the Eastern Cougar, Felis concolor couguar, since 1929. As well as being legally protected in New Brunswick, the eastern race of the Cougar is recognized as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, a federal-provincial wildlife conservation body, and internationally under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

...in nearly a third of New Brunswick sightings Cougars are reported to be black...

The race is reported to be distinguished by its relatively small size, reddish colouration, and dark dorsal stripe. However, so few specimens have ever been examined that the status of the Eastern Cougar as a distinct race remains uncertain. Unfortunately there is virtually nothing specific known about the biology of the eastern population either. Even basic descriptive information that can be verified on variation in the size and colouration of these eastern animals is lacking.

Most reports of the colour of New Brunswick Cougars vary through light tan to gray and dark brown. These are the normal colours of Cougars in the west of North America. However, in nearly a third of New Brunswick sightings Cougars are reported to be black, although there has never been a black Cougar killed anywhere in North America to date.

Among cats native to the western hemisphere only the Jaguar is larger than the Cougar. In Canada the only carnivores that exceed the Cougar in size are bears. Male Cougar of the largest races may weigh more than 100 kg, nearly 50% heavier than the maximum for females. Both sexes are short-haired and may be more than 3 m from nose to the end of the long, black-tipped tail. Stripes on the muzzle and the back of the ears are also black. Newborn kittens are spotted but this colouration disappears at about six months. The front paws of the adult are of greater size than the rear paws, an aid when subduing large prey.

Cougars stalk their prey, principally larger mammals such as deer.

Cougars are wary, territorial creatures that tend to be more active by night than by day. These cats are excellent climbers, and although they can swim they do so reluctantly. Cougars stalk their prey, principally larger mammals such as deer. Their diet may also include beaver, moose calves, porcupine, other small mammals, and occasionally livestock. Once within striking distance a Cougar will spring forward with two or three great bounds, striking with an impact sufficient to bring even large prey to the ground. Prey are usually killed quickly, with a deep neck-breaking bite, or through suffocation by collapsing the trachea of the victim. The carcass is then dragged or lifted to a secluded spot where the animal will feed. If food is scarce the Cougar may rake leaves and branches over the kill for later feeding.

Cougar are essentially solitary. Each male establishes a territory or home range, marking it with scratched scent posts known as scrapes. Normally this territory will overlap that of several females, but rarely that of other males. Conversely, the territories of female cougar frequently overlap. Cougar are polygamous, each male mating with all receptive females which enter his home range.

Cougar are largely silent, but like any cat will vocalize with yowls and screams, particularly during the breeding season. Females reach sexual maturity between two and three years of age, males at about three years. Although there is no defined breeding season, most young are born in late winter and mid-summer following a 90 to 96 day gestation period. A sheltered area, such as a rock overhang or a windfall is selected as a nesting site. Litters are normally produced every other year and usually consist of one to two kittens, but as many as six have been recorded. Prior to the birth of the kittens the female will separate from the male. Newborn kittens weigh about 400 g, have woolly, spotted coats and striped tails. Their eyes open at about two weeks. The mother will start to bring them meat at about six weeks and by three months they will be fully weaned. Young remain with the mother for about two years, during which time they learn to hunt. Male Cougar are not involved in the care of the young and have been known to attack and kill young left undefended by the female.

Prey densities do not seem to be a factor limiting Cougar in New Brunswick.

In spite of depredations on Cougar and Cougar habitat since the arrival of the Europeans, the animal still has one of the most extensive distributions of any mammal in the western hemisphere. At one time this cat was found across the continent and south to Argentina. The range of the Cougar in Canada once was similar to that of deer, its principal prey, but today the Cougar is only common in the west. Nonetheless, the removal of bounties has meant that Cougar are begining to repopulate parts of their former range.

Although elusive and extremely wary of humans, the Cougar is an adaptable animal. Cougar will occupy a variety of vegetation types where human disturbance is minimal, as long as prey and cover sufficient for stalking prey are available. Forest harvesting in New Brunswick has created much second growth woodland. Such habitat is ideal for deer and during this century has led to increased deer populations in the province. Prey densities do not seem to be a factor limiting Cougar in New Brunswick.

Helping Out

There are no recent clearly identifiable photographs of Cougar in New Brunswick. Although many are now convinced that the Eastern Cougar survives in the province, evidence that the animal breeds here is lacking. Confirmation of breeding is a vital step in any conservation effort to protect the Cougar in New Brunswick. Observations reported by the public are the most likely source of such evidence. You can help by reporting any recent Cougar sightings to the New Brunswick Museum, where records of sightings are stored, or to wildlife biologists with the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources and Energy.

Further Reading

Banfield, A.W.F. 1974. The mammals of Canada. University of Toronto Press. Toronto. 438 pp.

Ganong, W.F. 1903. On reported occurrences of the Panther (Felis concolor) in New Brunswick. Bulletin of the Natural History Society of New Brunswick 21: 82-86.

Hansen, K. 1992. Cougar: the American Mountain Lion. Mountain Lion Foundation, Northland Publishing Co. Flagstaff, Arizona. 144 pp.

Tischendorf, J.W. 1990. The Eastern Panther on film? Results of an investigation. Cryptozoology 9: 74-78.

van Zyll de Jong, G.G. and E. van Ingen. 1978. Status report on the Eastern Cougar, Felis concolor cougar. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, Ottawa. 25 pp.

Wright, B.S. 1972. The Eastern Panther: A question of survival. Clarke, Irwin & Company Limited, Toronto. 180 pp.