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Our View: Mountain lions

These cats are amazing athletes

“Mountain lion sightings rise in region” was a recent headline in The Durango Herald for an article by Kala Parkinson. That’ll get your attention. The article said there had been 110 sightings in the southwest region of Colorado up to the end of October. La Plata County is leading the area with 78 of those sightings.

Yippee, another first place for us. I don’t mean to make light of the danger of an encounter. However, you have a better chance of dying from a lightning strike. My encounter involved hitting one with my car on the way into town. It would be more accurate to say the cat hit my car while attempting to run across the road from behind the end of a guardrail. The $8,000 worth of damage included a bent strut. It was a big kitty. Though it had to be hurt, it ran off seemingly unscathed. I have always had tremendous respect for these animals. However, rather than focusing on fear, I would like to highlight their amazing feats of athleticism.

Think of the impressive athletic abilities of a house cat in a much larger body and you have some idea of the athleticism of a mountain lion. These medium-sized “big cats” cats weigh from 75 to 250 pounds, averaging around 150 pounds. They measure 4.5 feet from their noses to their hindquarters. Their tails, used for balance while hunting, jumping and running, generally measure another 3 feet.

These cats are truly Olympians, decathletes, of the animal kingdom. They can jump 35 to 40 feet horizontally, 20 feet vertically, 60 feet down and can run at a speed of 45 to 50 mph over short distances. They are anaerobic athletes of the highest order, and their athletic ability is unrivaled even in the cat world. Their claws are especially sharp.

A cat in Colorado was observed jumping straight up from a standing position, turning upside down in midair, sinking the claws of all four feet into the underside of a 15-foot-high deck and hanging there for a few moments before retracting its claws and dropping gracefully to the ground. (Landing on its feet, of course, as cats do.)

The Latin name for the mountain lion is Felis concolor, meaning cat of one color. One distinguishing feature between mountain lions and cats of the genus Panthera is that they do not roar. They do purr, and use a variety of other vocalizations, including chirps, whistles, growls and screams. They are highly territorial and adaptable, and they live in regions ranging from lowland deserts to mountains over 14,000 feet high. They generally live from eight to 13 years.

Some of what gives them the edge over humans athletically is an amazing skeletal structure. Instead of vertebrae being held together by ligaments, cats’ vertebrae are connected with muscles, giving them a flexible spine that can arch, twist, lengthen and shorten. With a vestigial collarbone, mountain lions have their front legs attached directly to the shoulder blades, giving them the ability to turn quickly as they follow prey. If these characteristics remind you of Africa’s cheetahs, your connection is correct. Mountain lions are the closest living relatives to cheetahs. Though not as fast, they are stronger than cheetahs. For catching large prey, they stalk and then leap to the back of the prey, breaking its neck by biting at the base of the skull.

Biologists observed one mountain lion jump 10 feet up into a tree with a deer carcass in its mouth.

Mountain lions go by nearly a dozen names: cougar, puma, panther, painter, mountain screamer, catamount and, in Native American culture, ghost walker. Perhaps the most fitting moniker, however, is shadow cat. The unnerving thing about seeing a mountain lion in the wild is that when you see one, it has probably already been watching you for a while and has made up its mind about you long before you see it.