Cougar vs Mountain Lion – What Are the Differences?

Written by AZ Animals Staff
Published: July 18, 2021


Cougars, and pumas, and mountain lions, oh my! Depending on where you live or what you are watching, you may hear America’s big cat called by a number of different names.

Are there differences between cougars and mountain lions? Where do they live? Keep reading to find out.

Cougar vs. Mountain Lion

Mountain lion and cougar are actually two different names for the same animal. Cougars have a very large range spanning much of North and South America. Different groups of people called them by different names.

Comparing Cougars vs. Mountain Lions

The same descriptive features apply to this animal, whether you call it a mountain lion or a cougar. Here are some fast facts:

Scientific name – Puma concolor
Common names – Mountain lion, cougar, puma, panther, painter, catamount
Size – 2.8 to 5 ft (86 to 155 cm) in length, 75 to 158 lbs (34 to 72 kg)
Habitat – Mountains, forests, deserts, swamps
Range – North and South America
Lifespan – Up to 20 years
Body – Feline
Temperament – Stealthy, solitary

The term “mountain lion” is most often used for the North American subspecies (Puma concolor cougar), and “cougar” for the South American subspecies (Puma concolor concolor). Begin from the same species, the differences between these cats are slight, but include:

Mountain LionCougar
RangeNorth and Central AmericaSouth America
Overall SizeSlightly largerSlightly smaller
DietDeerWild camelids
ClimateCoolWarm
ColorationSilveryReddish

Key Differences Between Cougars and Mountain Lions

Cougars and mountain lions are the same species, Puma concolor. This big cat has the largest range of any land mammal (besides humans) in the Western Hemisphere, so it is not surprising that isolated populations developed into subspecies. These include:

The North American Cougar
Classified as Puma concolor cougar, this subspecies ranges from Canada to the southernmost reaches of the United States, through Mexico and Central America, and possibly into South America.

The Florida Panther
This subspecies was once found throughout the southern United States. Nearly hunted to extinction, around 50 individuals now live in southern Florida. Conservation efforts seek to help this population make a comeback. Florida panthers are generally smaller than their western cousins. Though distinct, it is still part of the Puma concolor cougar or North American cougar subspecies.

The South American Cougar
This subspecies is classified as Puma concolor concolor. It is known to reside in the South American countries of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela.

Consider these differences in more detail.

Range

North American mountain lions range from Canada, across the American West, east to the Florida panhandle, and into Central America. Some populations are believed to reside in South America as well.

The South American cougar lives throughout South America, including Brazil and the Andes Mountains.

Overall Size

Adults of the Florida panther and South American cougar varieties may weigh only half of what adult North American mountain lions weigh.

Diet

Cougars and mountain lions are opportunistic predators. They’ll take whatever mammals and birds they can catch, but diets vary somewhat based on the prey available in each geographic region. Mountain lions eat lots of deer and mountain sheep. South American cougars hunt wild camelids including the llama, alpaca, vicuña, and guanaco, as well as the capybara, the world’s largest rodent.

Climate

The mountain lion generally lives in cooler mountainous regions, while the cougar inhabits tropical forests. Again, the exception to this is the Florida panther of the northern subspecies, which dwells in hot, humid, swampy habitats.

Coloration

All cougars have a tawny coat with a lighter underbelly. However, differences in coloration are seen depending on the climate. Mountain lions may have silvery, slightly longer fur, while cougars from warm areas – the Florida panther and the South American cougar – have a more reddish coloration.

Next Up: The Top 10 Fluffiest Animals in the World!

Cougar vs Mountain Lion – What Are the Differences? FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Is There a Difference Between a Cougar and a Mountain Lion?

Yes. Cougars and mountain lions are the same species of big cat, Puma concolor. They are, however, of different subspecies.

Why Are Cougars Called Mountain Lions?

In a native South American language, the cat was called cuguacuarana. Settlers shortened the word to “cuguar,” and later altered the spelling to “cougar.”

When settlers from Spain came to North America, they called the cougar gato monte, meaning “cat of the mountain,” as well as leon, the Spanish word for lion. These terms described both the cougar’s appearance – similar to a female African lion, but smaller – as well as its mountain habitat. In English, these terms were combined to form “mountain lion.”

What Other Names Are Used for Cougars and Mountain Lions?

The Incas called mountain lions “pumas.” “Panther” was a term used by Europeans to describe big cats with a solid coat. This name was thus given to the sandy-colored cougar as well as a related species, the solid black morph of the jaguar. In some places, they are also called painters or catamounts.

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