AUBURN, Ala. – A recent mountain lion attack on a child in Colorado has people wondering just where in the United States the large predator lives. While most common out west, scientists say their range is expanding. Four documented sightings of mountain lions occurred in Tennessee in 2015. A 2015 game camera photo led to speculation about mountain lions in Alabama. The photo quickly circulated on social media, along with a sequence of theories and assertions from the public.
“There are supposed sightings all the time, the problem is there haven’t been any actual confirmed sightings in a long time,” Bradley said. Regarding the image taken in 2015, he said the photo could easily be a house cat because there’s nothing to base the animal’s size on.
Dr. Jim Armstrong, an Alabama Extension forestry and wildlife specialist and professor at Auburn University, said there are usually 20 to 30 supposed mountain lion sightings a year in Alabama, though confirming evidence is lacking. “I’m skeptical that the 2015 picture is a mountain lion,” he said. “I wish there was some sort of corroborating evidence.
Armstrong notes Alabama has a history of mountain lions because it is part of their natural range. Mountain lions, also called cougars, panthers or pumas, had a thriving population in Alabama in the 1800s and early 1900s.
“The last confirmed mountain lion sighting was more than 50 years ago,” said Armstrong. “As human population and development expanded, large predators were either killed or forced west to less developed areas.”
Today mountain lions are prospering in the western U.S., especially in California and Arizona. But the species has made its way back into states where they were previously extinct, the closest being Missouri, Tennessee and Florida.
“Many animals who were removed from areas adapt outside of that area and become more tolerant of human activity,” Armstrong said regarding the animals’ return to Tennessee. “That increases the chances of them returning to the state. So the possibility is there, but as of right now we don’t have any hard evidence that it is reoccurring.”
The endangered Florida panther, a subspecies of the western mountain lion, resides in forests and swamps of southern Florida. According to Armstrong, it is highly unlikely that species would migrate up to Alabama without being sighted on its way. “It’d be more likely we’d have animals coming down into the state,” he said.
What to Look For
One sure way to identify a mountain lion is through its prints. Bradley said people call in about prints that are large enough, but show claw marks. “Much like other cat species, their claws stay tucked under their paws when they’re walking,” he said. “If people see large prints with visible claw marks, they’re usually large dog prints.”
Mountain lion prints are generally four inches across, with three distinct lobes on the pads. Depending on the geographical area, these animals can be anywhere from 80 to 200 pounds.
“They also do what is called caching, which is where they pull leaves and foliage over their prey’s carcass to come back to it later,” Armstrong said. “The length of the distance the animal reaches to pull vegetation over the carcass is indicative of the size of the animal.” This can be used as evidence in identifying mountain lions.
Dangers and Risks
According to Armstrong, mountain lions tend to be very secretive and quick. “For the most part we’re not talking about anything that’s a significant threat to humans, especially with the very low populations like we have in the eastern U.S.”
“Just like any type of wildlife attack, it is unlikely that a mountain lion would attack an adult human,” Bradley said. “They do not seek us out.”
Armstrong’s views align with Bradley’s. But he points out that there are no absolutes with wildlife. There can always be an exception.
Unprovoked, uninvited attacks on humans do happen, but they are rare. Most of the time, it is human activity that leads to instances with wild animals.
“The attack on the child is extremely tragic and, just like the recent alligator attack in Florida, should never be taken lightly,” said Armstrong. “Human life, especially that of a child, always takes priority over that of an animal. But these attacks are rare in areas where these animals are common, and so in areas where mountain lions are rare the chances are even more remote.”
Featured Image and all color images in story by Geoffrey Kuchera/shutterstock.com