The Eastern cougar was officially declared extinct on Wednesday March 2, 2011 by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. There still exists some controversy, though, as to whether it was correctly classified as a unique subspecies in, the first place, though. According to a genetic study conducted in 2000, scientists believe that the “Eastern cougar” is not significantly genetically distinct from the Western branch of the cougar family. Nevertheless, the Eastern cougar population has dwindled steadily in number since European settlers first arrived in the Americas, and the majestic apex predator is now considered extinct.
Native to the eastern part of North America, the cougar, also known as the puma, the mountain lion, or the panther, weighed in at a relatively modest 140 pounds, on average. With tails nearly as long as their bodies, adults frequently measured seven feet from nose to tail tip. Providing an important counterbalance, their impressive tail length allowed cougars to expertly climb trees or jump across rivers when hunting.
Like humans, Eastern cougars had binocular vision, and their sense of depth perception ensured the accuracy in judging distance for their hunting maneuvers. With ears that moved either together or independently, eastern cougars had little difficulty in locating their prey. Their well developed sense of smell allowed them to easily follow scent trails to track their next meal with deadly efficiency. The Eastern cougar preferred to hunt by ambush, though, utilizing the surrounding terrain as cover until its prey was close enough to be caught by an explosive burst of speed.
The Eastern cougar once thrived in a variety of habitats, from the coastal swamps of Florida to the Appalachian Mountains. Comfortable in areas that provide trees or boulders as cover, the size of the Eastern cougar’s hunting range varied from as little as 30 square miles to as much 400 square miles depending on the availability of prey animals. While they preferred to hunt deer, the cougar was also known to eat smaller mammals and birds, and in a pinch even insects.
As America’s population grew steadily with settlers, the people on the frontier feared predatory animals. To protect themselves and their livestock, the settlers began a campaign to exterminate the cougars they came into contact with. As time progressed, the industrial revolution and the growth of cities contributed to massive deforestation throughout the Eastern cougar’s natural hunting ground. With a substantially reduced population of deer available as food, the population of the Eastern cougar dwindled as well.
There are still reports of cougar sightings in the Eastern United States, but none of these are attributed to “true Eastern cougars”. The cougars seen in the wild today are most likely either Western cougars who have migrated, or exotic pets that were irresponsibly released. If the genetic study from 2000 is true, though, and there is no real difference between the Eastern and Western branches of the cougar family, then perhaps the Eastern cougar survives, after all.