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North America is home to a range of diverse wildlife. It’s thought that, during the last ice age, there were lions so large they were the ultimate apex predator. Today, we don’t have lions quite as large but there are some interesting wild cats across North America.
North America Wild Cats Overview
In North America there are wild cats that belong to a variety of genuses including mid-sized species from the lynx genus and larger cats from the puma or panthera genuses. In the past, it’s thought there were as many as 67 species of ancient sabretooth cats on this continent but today, we only see two large species of big cats which include the jaguar and the cougar.
There are also several species of wild cats, all belonging to the felidae family. Most of these carnivorous species hunt at night and live solitary lifestyles.
How Did Wild Cats Reach America?
It’s been discovered that the primary ancestor of the panther lived in Asia some ten million years ago. So how on earth did these, among other cat species, find their way to North America?
Over those millions of years, sea levels have risen and fallen several times. About nine million years ago, it’s believed that the sea level was just right that large cats were able to migrate from Asia to North America via what is known as the Bering land bridge.
But they didn’t just stay here. DNA evidence links all cats to one of eight lineages. Therefore, scientists think that these big cats migrated back and forth between North America and Asia, evolving different characteristics and species as time went on.
While some may suggest that the spread was back in the days of Pangea, this is disproven since the giant continent broke up 165 million years ago, which was long before the age of the mammals.
Types of Wild Cats in North America
There are six species of wild cat in North America, with two being considered to be big cats. Below we’ve put together some information on each of these felines.
1. Bobcat (Lynx rufus)
The bobcat is a type of lynx and is found all over North America. It’s thought that there could be as many as three and a half million bobcats currently in the United States alone, and in many areas, numbers are on the rise.
Bobcats typically live a lonely life but they will come together when it’s time to mate. They’re not loyal and both the males and the females may breed with several partners over the course of their lives; this could be around seven years in the wild.
These are medium-sized cats, and the males can grow to be around 40 lbs (18 kg), with the females being slightly smaller, 33 lbs (15 kg), on average. This is around double the size of an average domesticated cat.
Bobcats have a bobbed tail and it is this that gives them their name. In terms of color, this can vary between individuals but most will be a shade of brown or buff with black markings such as spots and stripes as well as black tips on both the tail and ears.
Another distinct feature of the ears are the tufts which can also be found along the sides of the head.
Being the most common wild cat in North America, it comes as no surprise that the bobcat is found in almost every corner of the continent. They’re common across the United States and in the southernmost parts of Canada. Bobcats can also be found in Mexico.
Out of all parts of North America, the bobcat is more common in southeastern areas than it is in the west part of the continent.
While the bobcat prefers to take shelter in hidden spots such as a hollow tree or a crevice in the rocks, the type of habitat it prefers will vary greatly. You’ll find these animals living in mountainous regions as well as deserts and even in a forest setting.
The bobcat is a good swimmer although it’ll only do this when necessary. What’s more, while these animals are excellent climbers, it’s rare you’ll find them in the trees.
In surveys, as many as 40 of the American states have been able to provide information on the local conservation status of the bobcat to show that numbers are either stable or on the rise. The only state that reported a decline in the number of bobcats was Florida and some states were unable to provide any information.
In any case, these findings show that the bobcat is not under any current significant threat. In fact, this is the most common wildcat in North America.
2. Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis)
The ocelot is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful-looking wild cats in North America. These are nocturnal animals that prey on small creatures owing to their own small size. Typically, the ocelot is around twice the size of a standard domestic cat.
These animals have been known to humans for many hundreds of years having first been discovered in 1758. However, they can be quite temperamental as the ocelot is a highly territorial animal. It is a carnivore, just like most cats, and feeds on a varied diet of armadillos, possums, and small mammals.
Ocelots are small wild cats that don’t normally weigh more than 34 lbs (15 kg) for males and 26 lbs (12 kg) for females. This is larger than a domestic cat but not as big as something like a bobcat.
It’s easy to identify an ocelot thanks to its distinctly marked coat which is a golden yellow color with dark ringed markings that are similar to those of a leopard or jaguar. For this reason, the cat is sometimes called the mini jaguar.
The ocelot is not as widespread as other cats in North America but is most commonly found in southern states like Arizona and Texas. It also lives in South America, where the numbers are much greater.
Ocelots are also common within the Caribbean Islands, most notably on Trinidad and Margarita.
If you’re looking to spot an ocelot then you’ll need to head to mangroves, swamps, or rainforest areas, as these are its favorite type of habitat. This is because of the vast amount of vegetation and a reason that you may sometimes find them in grasslands, but not as often.
You may also be able to spot an ocelot resting in the trees where it will stay safe from predators. They are known for their impressive climbing skills.
Ocelots are considered to be of least concern overall, but there is evidence to suggest that their numbers are declining in Texas. The main reason for this is thought to be a loss of habitat.
3. Canadian Lynx (Lynx canadensis)
As its name suggests, the Canada lynx is from the lynx family and is found in Canada as well as in some other parts of North America.
Owing to the climate in the areas where these animals live, we can see that they have a range of special adaptations. This includes longer legs for wading through the snow, as well as a super thick coat that keeps them warm in the harsh winters. What’s more, their paws are much broader than those of other wild cats, as this stops them from sinking in the snow.
These cats are pretty fussy about what they eat and mainly prey on the snowshoe hare which can make up to 97% of this animal’s diet.
While the Canada lynx is one of two lynx species found in North America (the other being the bobcat), it has a vastly different appearance. Where the bobcat has dark markings, the Canada lynx is a more solid color of grayish brown.
Canada lynx are slightly larger than their bobcat relatives, and males can grow to be around 60 lbs (27 kg). Where height is concerned, a fully grown male could measure up to 22 inches (56 cm) from the ground to the shoulder.
The Canada lynx, as you might have guessed, is native to Canada. However, you will also find them in Alaska as well as some other parts of the northern United States. In years gone by, it was thought that there were populations in as many as 24 of the United States, as far down as New Mexico but this is no longer the case.
The Canada lynx can largely be found wherever there are strong populations of snowshoe hares, as this is its main prey. This means that these cats are very common in the boreal forests of Canada as far up as the tree line of the Arctic.
Since the year 2000, the Canada lynx has been listed as endangered by the Endangered Species Act. This is primarily to do with the loss of populations in the United States which is largely believed to be the fault of humans which has led to a loss of habitat.
However, numbers have been assessed again in recent years, and it seems that things may be looking up. According to the IUCN Redlist, the Canada lynx is now listed as of least concern.
4. Jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi)
Out of all the wild cat species found in North America, the jaguarundi is perhaps one of the least common. That’s because it’s native to central and South America, but there have been sightings in some southern parts of the United States.
These are not large wild cats and they have a very unique appearance which many compare to that of a large weasel. Despite this, the jaguarundi is actually a close relative of the puma.
While a lot of species of wild cats in North America are nocturnal, this is one that hunts during the day, looking for birds, rodents, and reptiles.
As I have already mentioned, the appearance of the jaguarundi does look very much like a weasel and that’s because of the long shape of its body and small head. It also has much shorter legs than other species of wild cats.
In terms of color, the jaguarundi is either a golden red or a dark shade of gray. It doesn’t have any markings, and its coat is a solid, smooth color.
In North America, the jaguarundi has been spotted in Texas and Florida, although it is not native to these areas, and there certainly are not large populations here. Instead, these animals are more common in Central and South America, from Argentina up to the northern parts of Mexico.
Being one of the rare North American wild cat species that is active mainly during the day, you are much more likely to see the jaguarundi in its natural habitat. These cats can be found in savannahs, grasslands, and even forests.
There is concern over a loss of habitat for the jaguarundi as well as the fact that these animals often get caught in traps intended for other animals. However, this, fortunately, hasn’t impacted their conservation status, and they are considered to be of least concern at the time of writing.
However, the number of jaguarundis in any one area is very diverse. For example, in Mexico, it’s thought that there are around 20 per 100 km² whereas in Brazil, this number is much lower with just one to five every 100 km².
5. Mountain Lion (Puma concolor)
The mountain lion is perhaps one of the most well-known wild cats in North America, and it’s sadly earned itself a bit of a bad reputation owing to attacks on humans. But while there have been a lot of horror stories in the media, attacks on humans are much lower than you’d imagine.
Mountain lions are huge, but since they are not in the genus panthera, they cannot be officially called a big cat. That might come as a surprise when you find out that they’re actually the fourth largest species of cat on the planet; the Siberian tiger takes the record and can weigh up to 660 lbs (299 kg)!
As I have mentioned, the mountain lion is an enormous animal, and the males can get as big as 220 lbs (100 kg). Females are significantly smaller and don’t usually grow to more than 141 lbs (64 kg), but that’s still pretty large.
These cats have rounded ears and a small head and are without any markings on their coats. Their fur can be a range of colors with the most common being various shades of brown and gray.
Mountain lions, sometimes called pumas, cougars, or catamounts, are among the most widespread types of wild cats in North America. They are also found in South America, where they can be found very commonly in Chile.
In the north, mountain lions are common across most of the United States, however, in Florida, they are called the Florida panther. You’ll even find them as far north as Yukon in Canada.
While its name may suggest that the mountain lion is found in mountainous regions, this animal is highly adaptable. As such, it’s often found in grasslands, forests, and even in deserts.
When looking at the status of the mountain lion, we see that the numbers are on the rise. Between 2002 and 2006, these animals were considered to be near threatened by the IUCN Red List, but they have since moved back into the category of least concern.
6. Jaguar (Panthera onca)
A beautiful and distinctly marked cat, the jaguar is the largest species of wild cat to be found in North America. Sadly, numbers are decreasing rapidly, and it’s important that we make an effort to protect these stunning creatures.
Jaguars are apex predators, meaning that nothing predates them. They have a varied diet that can include anything from caimans to deer as well as things like the wild boar.
Being part of the panthera genus, the jaguar is the only cat in North America that can officially be called a big cat. What’s more, it’s the third biggest cat in the world and has the third most powerful bite of any feline.
The jaguar may be one of the easiest wild cats in North America to identify thanks to its rosette shaped markings. These markings are black in color and stand out against the tan to brown color of the cat’s coat. They have these marks as a way of camouflaging when they hunt.
These are huge cats, the largest type of wild cat in North America and the third largest cats in the world. The males can reach 211 lbs (96 kg), while the females usually grow to around 172 lbs (78 kg). The maximum length for these animals is usually around six feet (1.8 meters). They have a much shorter tail than other species of big cat and have a chunky build.
The jaguar is more common in South America but it does appear in Central and North America. In the north, the most common sightings are in the southern United States in places like New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona, although these sightings are rare.
Jaguars prefer forest habitats and wetlands, but they can also be found in grassy areas. They like locations where they can get a lot of cover but are occasionally found in coastal regions, particularly where there is a lot of tree cover.
Jaguars can live for between ten and eleven years in the wild, and when kept in captivity, they could live up to twenty years. But sadly, this long life span doesn’t help the rapidly declining numbers of these cats, and it’s thought that there are now only 173,000 individuals left in the wild, rendering them near threatened.
Biggest Threats to Wild Cats in North America
There are some wild cats in North America whose numbers are pretty stable at the moment, but that doesn’t mean there are significant threats to their survival. What’s more, some cat species, like the jaguar, are under serious threat. Let’s take a look at what risks they, and other species, face.
Most people don’t hunt wild cats for food but as a trophy, they are highly prized. For example, in Mexico, it’s a real honor to hunt and catch a bobcat, and there’s even issues with legal small group hunting in this country that threaten the survival of the species.
While hunting isn’t a major issue for ocelot populations in North America, in South America there are many countries that it is widely hunted, including Paraguay, Mexico, Guatemala, and Suriname. One of the most common reasons for hunting this species is for the pet trade, where the animals have been severely exploited.
Pumas are often hunted by humans purely because of their reputation. One of the biggest threats comes from farmers who have had a long-running battle with the species and will use a variety of traps to kill or harm them.
There has been a massive clamp down legally and morally on the use of fur for fashion, with many companies opting for synthetic materials instead. But there’s still a long way to go, and so it may come as a surprise that, in the US, there are 38 states that still legally allow the harvest of bobcat fur.
In Canada and Alaska, the Canada lynx is widely hunted for the fur trade. However, this is closely managed owing to the decline in numbers of these animals, and in some parts of southern Canada, they are entirely protected.
Humans have a lot to answer for when it comes to habitat loss for wild cats in North America. The distribution of the mountain lion is far less than it was 100 years ago, and much of this can be attributed to habitat loss through things like agriculture.
In North America, most notably in Texas, ocelots face the biggest threat from traffic. Things became so severe that there have now had to be measures put in place to try to control deaths by collisions with cars and other vehicles.
In Florida, it has been reported that one of the main threats to cougars are collisions with traffic and the same can be said of California. Again, measures such as overpasses can be implemented to lower the risk of these animals ending up on the roads.
In some states, like California, wildfire can force species like the mountain lion to flee their natural habitat. The devastation caused by severe fires can be equal to the habitat loss from human development, leaving the animals nowhere to hide.
One of the most common reasons that a cougar might be seen on the highway is because it has fled an area where there is a fire. Not only does this pose a risk to the creature, but there is also a lack of food when these animals are forced into areas where they don’t know how to hunt.
Conservation Efforts to Protect Wild Cats in North America
Nobody wants to see the precious wild cats of North America decline so much that they’re at risk of extinction. But the good news is that there are lots of conservation efforts being made to ensure their survival.
Without these keystone animals, the balance of the ecosystem would be thrown out, so it’s more important than ever that they are protected. But one of the biggest things that conservation charities need to do is educate people because there’s a stigma attached to wild cats that they are dangerous or kill livestock.
The Felidae Conservation Fund is making efforts to work with communities to educate them on wild cats and their role in the ecosystem. They’re helping people to find ways of living alongside wild cats so that both humans and animals can be happy.
Other efforts include those to protect the ocelot whose numbers have declined concerningly so in Texas. There have been efforts to regenerate vegetation to improve the local habitat for these animals, as well as working closely with local agencies.
It is now illegal to trap or harm wild cats in many parts of the United States as there has been legislation passed to protect them. However, there is still some way to go since these same laws don’t apply in all parts of North America, for example, it’s still legal to trap cats in Canada.
Why Did Saber-Toothed Cats Become Extinct in North America?
Millions of years ago, there were over 60 different species of saber tooth tigers in North America, but these are no longer present and haven’t been for a very long time. In fact, according to fossils, it would seem that the saber tooth tiger has been extinct for around 10,000 years. But what happened to it?
There are several reasons that scientists believe these apex predators went into decline and subsequently extinct. For starters, a change in climate at the end of the last ice age would suggest that temperatures could have risen by a massive six degrees over the course of 5000 years. This would have had an impact on many animals but most notably, large mammals like the saber tooth.
What’s more, with many other species in decline, the saber tooth tiger did not have such a plentiful supply of food. It would hunt animals like bison, the population of which significantly dwindled. That said, new research has suggested that bison weren’t the main menu item for saber tooths who are now thought to have hunted more in the forest on a diet of deer.
Another reason that these animals may have gone extinct from North and South America is down to humans. Once humans settled in North America, they began hunting these tigers for sport as well as to keep them as protection animals.