Mountain Lion, Catamount, Florida Panther, Cougar – across the Americas, from Canada to the tip of Argentina, these several names have each referred to the same animal: Puma concular, or puma. Often incorrectly thought of as exclusive to the mountains of North America, the puma in fact also prowls the same Central American jungles as its larger and better known cousin, the jaguar. While lacking its fellow big cat’s eye-catching pelt, the puma is nevertheless a powerful, beautiful, and formidable jungle predator in its own right – representing yet another example of the variety of Belize’s native cats.
The Biology of the Puma
Unlike the jaguar, which shares the same genus of Panthera as the Old World cats – tigers, leopards, snow leopards and lions – pumas are not true big cats, and notably cannot roar like other big cats (Snow Leopards also do not roar, but are genetically considered closely related to leopards and jaguars). Instead, pumas are considered “small cats”, and like the Belizean jaguarundi (its closest relative), most likely evolved from a shared ancestor of the cheetah in Asia, before crossing the Bering Land Bridge thousands of years ago. Today, they are the largest of the “small cats,” and some individuals can easily rival Jaguars in size and weight. In fact, the name puma originates from indigenous Americans as meaning “powerful.”
An ambush predator, pumas usually hunt medium-sized animals – such as deer, agouti, and paca – and live most of their lives solitary, with ranges that can range up to a hundred square kilometers. Belizean pumas are typically smaller than North American mountain lions or South American cougars, and it often is in competition for food and territory with the larger jaguar. Although labeled as least concern globally due to its large range, in Belize its population has been steadily declining, mostly due to deforestation and habitat loss – a fate mirrored by almost all of Belize’s cats. Although well-studied in America and Canada, the animal’s conservation status not as understood south of the border, and scientists are still in the process of determining just how healthy local puma populations are in Belize and Central America.
Primarily nocturnal, pumas can be hard to spot in Belize during daylight hours, although they can be occasionally seen around dust or dawn in both dense rainforests and more open environments. As opportunistic predators, pumas survive in a variety of climates mostly because they’re willing to eat nearly anything, from aforementioned deer and pacas to rabbits and even sometimes marine mammals.
Like the jaguar, pumas have traditionally been considered religiously significant to many American indigenous peoples. In Peru, the Incan capital of Cuzco was reportedly created as to appear in the shape of a puma, while in New Mexico Native Americans carved life-sized statues to the creature. Amongst the ancient Mayans of Mexico and Belize, pumas and jaguars might even have been specifically collected and kept in zoos, where they were housed, fed, and used in ritualistic sacrifices to the gods.
The Forecast for Pumas in Belize
Today, the puma’s relationship to humans, particularly south of the Mexico – American border, is often fraught. Although true population numbers are little understood, pumas are seen as a threat to livestock and are often hunted down by farmers in Belize and elsewhere. Habitat fragmentation, brought along by human development, also threatens to harm existing populations, with several portions of the cat’s original range – including almost all of Eastern North America, Uruguay, and a significant portion of Panama. However, in Belize the recent protection of the Maya Forest Corridor serves as a big step to healing habitat fragmentation, helping keep both jaguar and puma populations healthy. Outside of Belize, pumas are considered endangered by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service in Florida and Costa Rica, and as near threatened in Brazil.
While threats persist, for now Belize’s pumas still thrive, and will so for the foreseeable future so long as conservation and education efforts persist to keep these big (if not “officially” big) cats part of the thriving Belizean ecosystem. And if you needed one more reason to pay these cats attention, know that pumas are the only big cat known to purr – just like your house cat back home.
article by Devin Windelspecht
- All images are captured from the IE trail cams in Belize. © Inspire-Edventures LLC – all rights reserved