Posts Tagged ‘cougar’

feral horses

I make no bones about my view that the horses that roam the American West are feral and should not be regarded as native wildlife. This view shouldn’t controversial, but it is.

Lots of romanticism exist about horses and the West, including that brief time when Native cultures used horses as their greatest asset in hunting bison.

But the truth is that the horses one might see roaming the ranges of the American West are all derived from domestic horses that went wild on the range. The initial ones were all derived from Iberian/North African horses that Spanish colonizers brought into the New World, but these were later augmented with horses brought over from the rest of Europe.

If one were to say that the various forms of freely breeding swine in North America were feral, it would be easy to get agreement. Suids are not native to the Americas, though a sister lineage, the Tayassuidae, are native to North America. The tayassuids, better known as peccaries or javelinas, once ranged as far north as the Yukon, but since the Pleistocene, they have not ranged north of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.  Feral swine, though, exist over large sections of the country, and wildlife and agricultural departments spend lots of time, money, and manpower on controlling their numbers.

Feral horses, though, get special privileges, as do feral donkeys.  They receive a certain amount of protection not afforded to other feral livestock in the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. The horses and donkeys are not controlled in the same way feral pigs are. There is no continuous open season on them in the way that most states manage feral pigs.  Indeed, it is actually a crime to kill or harass feral horses or burros on federal land.  Excess horses and burros are managed through roundups, where some of them are deemed adoptable and sold to the general public.

For those of us with a modern ecological mindset, which has a deep disdain for making allowances for feral livestock, this law makes little sense.

But there is a sort of argument for this act. It goes something like this:

The modern horse species evolved in its current form in North America. Some taxonomists contend that there was once a Holarctic distribution of this species during the Pleistocene, and with the latest ancient DNA studies, I tend to agree with this assertion.

The North American population of horses became extirpated at the end of the Pleistocene, and when European horses went feral on the Western ranges, this constitutes a rewilding event.

Now, I don’t buy this argument very much, but I can say that there are some things we might consider. North America’s original population of cougars became extinct at the same time. The cougars that live in North America are derived from South American cougars that recolonized the continent about 2,000 years later.

Further, conservationists and sporting groups spend lots of resources on restoring and protecting elk populations. Elk have a much shorter history on this continent than horses ever did. Different experts have estimated when elk have first arrived. 40,000 years ago has been suggested, but more recent data points to them colonizing North America only 15, 200 years ago.

If elk arrived in North America only that recently, their status as native wildlife exists only as a weird  accident of geography. Elk are the on Cervinae or “plesiometacarpal deer” in the Americas. All the other deer in the Americas are Capreolinae or “telemetacarpal deer.”  Sika, axis, red deer, and fallow deer are also Cervinae, but they were introduced after colonization.

Elk don’t live in far northeast of Russia anymore. The elk of North America are the genetic legacy of this ghost population.

So the feral horse advocates could at least through the recent arrival of elk in North America as something to consider when we say their favorite animal is not native. Horses have a long evolutionary history in North America, and we just happen to be at an odd point of the history of horses that no native horses exist here. The earliest horse, Eohippus, first appeared in North America 52 million years ago.

So the feral horse advocates could say that we have a species that derived from a lineage that was here for over 50 million years that has now been restored through feral livestock and thus deserves these protections.  And this animal has at least as much rights to be free and roaming in North America as a large deer that had no connection to this continent until the latest Pleistocene.

However, the extinction of the horse in North America likely stemmed from natural climate change at the end of the Pleistocene.  Horses became extinct because they were poorly adapted to the new ecosystems, and as we have seen, horses really don’t do that well out in the deserts and semi-arid ranges of the West. They require water tanks to get them through long droughts, and they eat lots of forage. Not as much as domestic cattle, of course, but on ranges that are heavily catered toward livestock grazing, the horses are just an extra set of grazers that are taking away forage from native wildlife.

And even if we were to accept that horses were restored native wildlife, why on earth would we ever extend these protections to donkeys? Donkeys, though of ancient North American origin, evolved in their current form in Africa.

So although I do think of horses as no longer being native to North America, I do think questions of them being native or introduced are complicated, much more so than the question of feral pigs or cats. And yes, there is something like an argument that can be made for the native status of horses, even though I think it’s mostly in error.

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It is now widely accepted through ancient mitochondrial DNA analysis that North America’s Pleistocene “cheetahs” were actually offshoots of the modern cougar lineage and were not directly ancestral to the cheetah of the Old World.

However, these mitochondrial DNA studies did not reveal the full picture.  A full genome sequence was recently mapped from a specimen of Miracinonyx trumani, and this full genome has been compared to similar genomes of North American and South American cougars.

The researchers found something quite amazing.  We thought that the original population of North American cougars went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene as did the two “cheetahs.” About 8,000 years ago, cougars from South America recolonized North America, and these cougars that came into North America are the ancestors of the living cougars on this continent.

And because of the limited genetic diversity of the North American cougar, this 8,000 year point of origin is most likely.

However, what is particularly interesting is that between 8-12 percent of the North American cougar’s genome apparently comes from Miracinonyx trumani.  Estimates of when this introgression happened based upon the molecular clock suggest an entrance into the ancestral North American cougar 7,700-8,100 years ago.

So Miracinonyx trumani apparently lasted a few thousand years after the end of the Pleistocene, and when South American cougars recolonized North America, they mated with the now extinct “cheetah” species. This hybridization could have conferred upon these newly colonizing cougars some important alleles for surviving at temperate latitudes, which tropical cougars may have lacked.

Humans certainly were aware of the existence of the North American “cheetahs,” and if they survived to this late date, stories of their existence could have existed throughout indigenous American cultures.

Perhaps these cats lasted even longer, maybe even giving credence to the legendary Mexican onza.

Update  3 April 2019:

Hehe: April Fool!!!!!!

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Not so long ago, in terms of the history of our species and certainly not long ago in the history of the world, two “cheetahs” roamed North America, probably running the pronghorn and Odocoileus deer. They were fast and svelte like that cat of Africa and Asia, but they did not make it into the present fauna guild of this continent. 

The great extinction of the megafauna eventually wiped out the dire wolf and these running cats, which were replaced by the gray wolf sweeping down out of Eurasia and from the cougar recolonizing from South America.

Humans probably saw these cats and maybe stole their kills, maybe not though. They were running cats in the era when North America was like frigid Africa, where the faunal guilds of Eurasia and South America ran long and hard into each other. That of Eurasia eventually dominated in the end, but the opossum and the North American porcupine still made it, even though they were part of that austral losing team.

And where there were scores of fake antelope running about with our swift deer, there were two species of coursing cat to put them to flight.  
Miracinonyx was their genus, and M. trumani and M. inexpectus were the two species.  Trumani was more like a cheetah, and inexpectus was more like a very svelte cougar.

For much of my life, these animals were classified as American cheetahs, and there was a whole mythos about cheetahs first evolving in North America. And yes, it’s true that the cheetah’s closest relatives that still live today are the cougar and the jaguarundi, both of which are truly cats of the Americas.

But a few enterprising researchers were able to get some ancient mitochondrial DNA from trumani, and with careful comparison, they found that trumani was most closely related to the cougar. 

So we now think that the cheetah evolved in the Old World from an ancient cougar-like ancestor, but in North America, one form of ancient cougar begat two species with cheetah-like adaptations.

We call this sort of evolution “parallel evolution” in which two descendants evolve similar characters that are not shared by the common ancestor. It is similar to convergent evolution, which is the same sort of evolution without a direct relationship, but in convergent evolution, the common ancestor is so distant that it almost isn’t worth considering, such as the common ancestor of aardvarks and anteaters.

So North America never had any kind of cheetah. What we had instead were “coursing cougars.”

A piece of me longs to have seen one in the flesh, and for a time, cryptozoologists traveled around Mexico looking for such an animal. There were always references to “onzas” in the colonial literature of Mexico, and even today, onza is the term used for a particular cat in the countryside.  Onza means cheetah in Spanish, and there was always a hope that it referred to these old coursing cougars. 

But every lead led to a jaguarundi, which looks like an oddly-colored cheetah-cougar hybrid in miniature, or to really thin specimens of the cougar species.

So the coursing cougars went the way of the Smilodon and the dire wolf and the woolly mammoth.

But when you realize what was here some 12,000 years ago, it’s hard to not to be caught in flights of fancy. Our current wildlife seem picayune by comparison, but we once had all the majesty of the beasts of Africa south of the Sahara.

We’ve lost all these animals during that great extinction, and now we are looming into another one, this one definitely caused by our own actions.

And the cheetahs of Africa hold on by a thread. Those of Asia have almost gone entirely. They exist only in a narrow range in the north of Iran.  There may not be 50 of them left.

Extinction looms. We know it, and yet we feel so paralyzed by its inevitability, we wonder if we can act, if we can change, before it is too late.

To be a running cat is become a true specialist. To be a courser in a world already full of long-distance running dogs is to flirt with near extinction all the time.

But twice this form of cat evolved and ran long and hard across three continents.

Not a bad gamble in the terms of evolution’s blind whims.

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coyotes tree cougars

This scene happened at Wyoming’s National Elk Refuge. Five coyotes sent these two cougar kittens up on a fence, and the entire ordeal lasted over an hour.

Check out the photos of the encounter here.

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From The Hur Herald:

Nat Depue of Creston, who carries the mail between that place and Grantsville had a thrilling experience with a huge wild cat or some other animal of a like nature one day last week.

He had been delayed until late in the afternoon, waiting for the mail sacks which were on the Harry W. (a riverboat. It was dark when he crossed the Annamoriah flats, and he noticed something following him which he took to be a dog, but paid little attention to it until it darted past the horse and ran up a tree that leaned over the road.

From there the cat sprang, landing on the horse’s neck clawing and biting fiercely.

It hung on for a considerable distance until Nattie was enabled to kick it off. The horse became frightened and ran away, but was soon checked up and the game little mail carrier got a light and went back to look for his hat and the mail sacks which he had lost.

Nattie is still carrying the mail but it is a safe bet that he will always try to get across Annamoriah flats before dark.

Transcribed by Norma Knotts Shaffer from microfilm of the Calhoun Chronicle dated 1/24/1911.

It’s not really clear when the native cougar subspecies went extinct in West Virginia, but the state DNR mentions that cougar tracks were spotted in Pocahontas County– in the far reaches of the High Alleghenies– in 1936.

Now, this story may or may not be true, but if it is true, the culprit cannot be a bobcat.

I would be shocked if a bobcat would have the courage to attack a mounted rider in this fashion. Bobcats can kill deer. They don’t kill horses.

Cougars can kill horses, and it would make sense for a cougar to attack one, even if it happened to have a person riding it.

This animal would have been among the last of its kind in this part of the United States.

The true Eastern cougar has officially been declared extinct, but cougars from Western subspecies are definitely working their way into the East.

If any of the cougar sightings are true, then these animals have to be of one of the Western subspecies. The cougar is beginning to expand its range once again. In North America, its numbers are pretty secure, and in many areas, it’s on the rebound.

Maybe we will confirm the presence of the cougar in West Virginia once again.

Many people claim to have seen them.

But what they are seeing–if it’s a cougar at all– can’t be the old Eastern catamount.

It’s the Western variant working its way in the East.

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This dog-killing cougar was the first killed in Ontario since 1884.

Police in Ontario have killed the first cougar in the province since 1884. The cat was killed in near the town of Utterson, which is in the District of Muskoka.

The Ottawa Sun reports:

Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources have confirmed that an animal killed by police on the weekend is a cougar, long believed extinct in the province.

Police were called after the large cat killed a family dog in the Muskoka area.

There have been thousands of believed sightings of cougars in Ontario over the past few years, but this marks the first confirmed cougar killed in the province since 1884.

North of the Rio Grande, Puma concolor is doing fine.

It’s starting to work its way back into its former territory in the eastern half the continent.

Once they start to recolonize the Great Lakes region– as they clearly are– it will not be very long before they are able to set up shop in the St. Lawrence Valley and then work their way south and east into New England.  And from there, it’s not very long before they are in the Middle Atlantic states, especially the more remote mountainous parts of those states (which is where I am.)

Western cougars may be using the same paths to colonize the East that coyotes used.

The terrain is fairly flat from Lakes Superior and Michigan the eastern shore of Lake Eire and into Lake Ontario.  And the St. Lawrence also cuts a nice pathway to the east beyond the lakes.

It would make sense that lots of animals would use roughly the same path to travel from the Midwest into the Northeast.


Update: It looks like this cat is an escapee from a big cat collection just across the road.

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This "jaguar" was photographed via camera trap near Guelph, Ontario. No scale is given to figure out how big this cat is, and if it is cougar-sized, the dismissal of this animal's identity as black cougar "because no black cougar has been spotted in North America" is one of the dumbest things I've ever read. It doesn't matter that no one has never seen a black cougar in North America before. No one has ever seen a jaguar in Canada!

Cougars have re-established themselves in Ontario, which means that cougars are recolonizing the Eastern parts of North America using the same path through the Great Lakes region that Western coyotes used decades before. Western coyotes crossed with the few remaining wolves in the region became the modern Eastern coyote.

The evidence for cougars in Ontario comes from this recent paper by Rick Rosatte that was based upon camera trap images.  Cougars are in Ontario.

However, the camera traps also caught images of a black cat, which Rosate claims are jaguars or some exotic species. His reasoning behind calling these animals exotic is that no black cougar has been seen in North America.

The image above was captured near the city of Guelph. Guelph is a mid-sized city, roughly halfway between Michigan and New York State in that part of Southern Ontario that bridges the two states.

No scale is given in the photograph to give us any idea of the size of the cat.  I don’t know how we know this animal is large. It could be a  black domestic cat. One cannot even get a good  look at the ears of the cat, which do appear to be rounded, but that rounded shape could just be how the cat is holding its ears in the photo.

But if the animal is the size of a cougar, then it is much more likely that it is a black cougar than some exotic species.


Because jaguars don’t live in Canada. Their range in the United States is horribly truncated. One wanders up into Arizona or New Mexico every couple of years, but they once ranged up to the Grand Canyon and as far east as western Louisiana. Incidentally, those places are nowhere near Canada.

Further, no black jaguar has been spotted in North America– ever.  All North American jaguars, which live in Mexico and Central America, are spotted.

They are not well-adapted to living in frigid climates. Although they were wide-ranging in North America during the Pleistocene, modern jaguars have never been found in places where the winters are as harsh as they are in Ontario.

Now, someone will say “What about a leopard? Don’t leopards live in the Russian Far East, Manchuria, and North Korea?”  They do, but that’s only one subspecies. The Amur leopard is a specialized subspecies of leopard that has evolved to live in very cold conditions, and there are leopards in Central Asia that have adapted to colder climates.

All of these leopards are from subspecies in which only spotted individuals exist.

Black leopards are found only in certain tropical subspecies. Leopards on the southern end of the Malay Peninsula are always black. A huge percentage of the isolated leopards in Java are black, too. And most captive black leopards derive from these southeast Asian populations. There are some black leopards in Africa, especially in the Kenyan Highlands, which are about the only temperate place where black leopards can be found.

It is theoretically possible for a black leopard to survive in the marine temperate climate of Great Britain, but it is a stretch to think that leopard from tropical population could survive in Southern Ontario.

The greatest likelihood is that this cat is a domestic cat, but the second greatest likelihood is that it is a black cougar, the first of its kind documented on this continent. There have always been reports of black cougars.  The skin of one was described in 1960.  The cat was killed in Colorado, but the skin has been lost to time. A black cougar was supposedly killed in Costa Rica, which is also in North America, but it may have been a misidentified jaguarundi, which are the cougar’s closest relatives but are much smaller.

I think there is almost no chance of this animal being a jaguar or a leopard.

And until someone gives me some scale for this image, the best assumption is that it is a domestic cat.

And if it’s big, it’s very likely a black cougar, a phase that hasn’t been fully documented in North America before.

I think Rosatte’s assumptions are way off here.  A cougar can survive in Ontario. A tropical leopard or a South American jaguar would have a very hard time surviving there. The only black leopards that are found in temperate areas are not the primary source for captive black leopards, and no black jaguar has been confirmed outside of South America.

So if this is a big cat, it has to be a black cougar, regardless of whether one has been spotted in North America before or not.

But my money is on it being a domestic cat.

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