You hear the names thrown around all the time. Cougars, pumas, panthers, mountain lions: what’s the difference between them? Are there any differences at all? And, if they’re all the same animal, why does this particular species of cat have so many different names? In this article, we’ll talk about the cougar – the cat of many names.
What You'll Learn Today
What’s the Difference Between Cougars, Pumas, and Mountain Lions?
The short answer is, there is no difference.
Cougars are well known for having many different names, and each of these names refers to the same species of large cat. “Puma” and “Mountain Lion” are some of the most common names for cougars.
This begs the question: where did these different names come from? How and where did they originate?
The name “cougar” is actually a cross between South American indigenous names for jaguar. The word was originally spelled “cuguar” and was later changed to the current spelling.
Despite essentially being named after the jaguar, cougars are a separate species from jaguars. The jaguar is the largest cat in the Americas, while the cougar is the second largest.
The name “puma” also got its start in South America, where it remains the most commonly used name for the cougar. “Puma” means “powerful animal” in the Peruvian language Quechua.
In fact, the scientific name of the cougar is Puma Concolor, a name that combines the Peruvian word with a Latin word meaning “of one color.”
The name “mountain lion” is commonly used throughout the western United States and Canada. It’s a popular nickname that has become more widely used over time, but the name is actually quite misleading.
Cougars are not related to lions, as they belong to the Puma genus. Actual lions belong to the Panthera genus.
Which leads us to the next question:
Are Cougars and Panthers the Same?
Sometimes cougars are referred to as panthers, but in fact, panthers belong to an entirely different genera. Cougars are in the puma species, while the term “panthers” refers to the panthera species.
“Panther” is basically a blanket term that can be applied to a variety of big cats found throughout the world, including jaguars, leopards, tigers, and lions. The same is true of black panthers – according to eMammal, a division of the Smithsonian Institute, the term “black panther” refers to darkly colored leopards and jaguars.
The exception to the species rule is the Florida panther. Found in a small region of the Florida panhandle, these so-called panthers are actually a member of the puma genus, making them a subspecies of cougar (and one that is actually endangered).
Check out the following video to learn more about Florida panthers.
So, aside from scientific classifications, what sets panthers (excluding Florida panthers) and cougars apart?
- Panthers can roar, while cougars cannot.
- Panthers generally have shorter lifespans than cougars.
- Panthers are found throughout the world, including Asia, Africa, and South America. Cougars are only found in North and South America.
Are Cougars Known By Any Other Names?
As mentioned above, cougars are cats of many names; but just how many names are they known by?
It’s impossible to say for sure when you take all languages into account. But in English alone, the cougar is or has been known by 40 different names.
In fact, the cougar holds a Guinness world record for having so many names. Some of the names cougars have been called include:
- Katalgar and Ko-Icto: Names given the cougar by different Native American tribes.
- Lions and tigers: Early European colonists and settlers would frequently but incorrectly refer to cougars as lions or tigers.
- Catamount: Other early settlers used this name or the similar “carcajou” to refer to cougars.
- Painter: A common colloquialism for panthers.
- Swamp screamer: Probably a nickname mostly given to Florida panthers and other cougar subspecies that live in wetter climates.
Why Do Cougars Have So Many Different Names?
Cougars are widely distributed throughout the Americas, particularly South America. They can be found from the northern parts of Canada to the southern parts of Argentina and Chile, so different regions have simply developed different names for the cats.
In addition, cougars were called different names by different groups of people as they settled the Americas. Some of those names have stuck, especially in specific regions.
Cougar names may also refer to slight genetic differences between subspecies. For example, Florida panther kittens have a spotted, jaguar-like appearance, so their name may suggest a similar appearance between this cougar subspecies and the panthera genus.
Though they have many names and are divided into various subspecies, cougars are surprisingly similar in appearance and genetics no matter where they are found in the world.
There is no difference between cougars, pumas, and mountain lions. They are all the same species, members of the puma concolor genus.
Panthers are members of the panthera genus, so they are not related to cougars. The subspecies of cougar known as the Florida panther is not actually a panther, as it is a member of the puma genus despite its common name.
Cougars are known by many different names, but they are all very similar in appearance and genetics.