Eastern Cougar

Florida Cougar (Photo: USFWS)
(Enlarge photo)

Scientific Name: Felis concolor

Classification: Extinct

Abundance: None

Species Profile (PDF)


Florida Cougar (photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service {USFWS})

Florida Cougar Kittens (photo: David Schindle/USFWS)

Additional Information

Few large animals have generated more lore throughout North Carolina than the cougar. Cougars, also known as mountain lions, were once common here and they have left a legacy of place names throughout the state— indeed, the entire Southeast. Many ridges, creeks, swamps and mountains were long ago named for panthers or the colloquial term “painters,” both common names in this part of the country for the cougar. All cougars are members of the small cat family and are among the largest predatory animals of North America. Among New World cats, the various subspecies of cougars are second in size only to the jaguar of South America. 

Although classified as a member of the small cat family because of its skull and eye structure, the cougar is quite a large animal, the largest of all other species in its genus. The cougar’s coloration varies depending on where it lives and the time of season, but most often it ranges from tawny to grayish brown on its back and flanks, with a white chest, belly and throat. Dusky patches border the upper lip and the back of the ears while the tip of its tail is black. The cubs are buff-colored with spots that eventually fade. The cougar is known to be an excellent hunter in all weather conditions and it is an expert swimmer and good climber. It has speed and agility and is a stealthy stalker that hunts by sight and smell. It prefers wild quarry such as deer; however, cougars have been known to eat anything from slugs to horses.

For more information read the Eastern Cougar species profile.

Cougars were extirpated from North Carolina in the late 1800s, and since then, there has been no substantiated evidence of wild cougars living anywhere in the state. However, the NCWRC still periodically receives reports from the public about sightings of cougars or cougar tracks. Investigations into these sightings by NCWRC biologists reveal that they are nearly always misidentifications of both domestic and wild animals. Domestic cats and dogs, coyotes, bobcats, and red foxes infected with mange are the most common animals mistaken for cougars. Often, forced perspective is at play when domestic cats are mistaken for large cats. Some "sightings" turn out to be viral images of real cougars taken out West, or elsewhere in their known range. It is possible that some sightings can be attributed to captive cougars that have escaped or been illegally released. During the 1980s, two cougars were found feeding at a dumpster in Tyrrell County. Upon investigation, these animals had tattoos marking them as escaped pets.

Cougar, Dog, and Coyote Track Comparison

NCWRC also receives periodic reports of “black panthers.” Though the popular football mascot would lead us to believe otherwise, black panthers have never roamed wild in North Carolina. The only species that could be described as such are the African leopard and the jaguar of Central and South America. On rare occasions both species can produce melanistic individuals with a nearly black coat, which are then referred to as black panthers. Importantly, neither species is found in the wild anywhere near North Carolina (Jaguars range as far north as South Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, but have never been reported outside of the southwestern United States), and even cougars have never been seen with a black coat. Upon investigation, reports of black panthers often turn out to be domestic cats mistaken to be much larger, black dogs and coyotes, or bears. As with cougars, there is always a small possibility that it is a captive black jaguar or leopard that has escaped or been illegally released.