Wild Ideas: No cougars in Virginia . . . so far   

The mysterious cougar has long had a near-mythical place in the minds of humans, and despite no hard evidence that this big cat is still in Virginia, people here continue to report seeing them.

Recently reclassified as in the genus Puma, the cougar (Puma concolor) has many other common names — puma (as scientists tend to prefer), mountain lion, red tiger, deer tiger or panther. In 2011, wildlife biologist David Kocka, with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) co-authored an article on the status of cougars in Virginia for “Virginia Wildlife,” which is published by VDGIF. When he spoke about “mystery” animals at last year’s “Woods and Wildlife Conference” (see my Feb. 1 column), cougars took up half of his talk.

While there is no hard evidence that cougars are here in Virginia, they could be coming our way. By Those Eyes via Wikimedia

In his talk, Kocka said of the article, “We went through and pointed out the science behind why we’re pretty sure they’re not here.” In a follow-up conversation last month, Kocka said the cougar’s status here has not changed. He also wryly noted that there were no confirmed “sasquatch” sightings. (See the sidebar on what DNA testing reveals about this and about the yeti of the Himalayas.)

In a recent email exchange, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) research ecologist Bill McShea, who partnered with Kocka on the article, concurred that cougars are not here. McShea said his team at the SCBI Ecology Center has set up camera traps as part of the eMammal project “over the past five years or so” at more than 2,200 locations in Virginia. Out of the more than 32,000 wildlife “detections” that came out of the project, less than 5 percent were birds; the rest were mammals, and “none of these were mountain lions.” McShea also mentioned a colleague, Roland Kays, who is doing similar work in North Carolina, and as with “any other scientist putting an effort into camera trapping,” Kays found no mountain lions there.

People who think they’ve seen cougars tend to be passionate about what they think they saw, and even scientists I have talked with have said cougars came to mind in encounters of mysterious animals from a distance. But, as any scientist knows, in identifying an animal observed, first rule out the common before considering the rare. Kocka also acknowledged that we humans tend to be bad at judging size from a distance without a good frame of reference.

In “Wild Mammals of Virginia,” published in 1947, authors Handley and Patton write that the last eastern cougar in Virginia was killed in Washington County in 1882. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the last records of eastern cougars are believed to be in Maine (1938) and New Brunswick, Canada (1932). As Kocka noted in his talk last year, the only established population of big cats in the East today consists of 160-200 Florida panthers, a subspecies of the eastern cougar that was not extirpated. And anyone who thinks they’ve seen a black puma should know that they don’t come in that color, although there are big cats in Asian and South American that do.

It’s a normal human thing for our creative brains to fill in information gaps; it’s part of what has protected us from predators, and it extends to other parts of our lives. Think of how movies appear to us as one continuously moving image when they are actually a series of single frames strung together. Or consider the diminishing reliance on eyewitness testimony in trials.

The Innocence Project, which works to appeal convictions of people that have been unfairly incarcerated, has researched such testimony since the 1990s, when DNA testing was first introduced. According to an article in “Scientific American,” the project found that 73 percent of the 239 convictions overturned through DNA testing were based on such testimony. Wildlife biologists can now also use DNA to easily determine the species from which collected samples come, such as fur and scat.

Photos can be trickier to analyze, and Kocka says he is as skeptical of those as of eyewitness accounts. Most photos received from the public are lacking a frame of reference for size, are fuzzy, don’t show the entire animal or otherwise are inconclusive. Most trail cam photos are also taken in low light, when wildlife tends to be more active, which doesn’t help. Experts with whom I’ve shared photos I’ve received purportedly of cougars have determined most are of domestic cats, with a few bobcats or dogs.

A western cougar stands by a stream in Grand Teton National Park, in Wyoming. By National Park Service

Some photos of cougars that continue to cycle through the internet are hoaxes, passed on by people who may not know they are hoaxes. Although they are purportedly taken in Virginia, they were either taken out West or “photoshopped” to look like they were taken here, Kocka says. Fortunately, Kocka says, someone in his office is good at sleuthing out the fakes. (I usually start with snopes.com.)

If cougars are not here now, will they return? According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) website, in the United States cougars occupy the most extensive range of any New World terrestrial mammal: from the Canadian Yukon to the southern tip of South America, and from the West as far eastward as the western edge of the Dakotas, Nebraska and close to the eastern borders of Colorado and Texas. And they are coming our way — albeit slowly. “They will probably arrive in my lifetime,” McShea says.

TWRA reports 10 confirmed sightings, spread over four counties in Tennessee, since 2015, which was the first year evidence could be confirmed. Cougars found in the East recently come mainly from western populations, Kocka says, and most have been young males, such as a cougar hit on a highway in Connecticut a few years ago. As Kocka explains, young males tend to disperse in search of new breeding territory to avoid competing for mates with more-mature males.

Most of these pioneering males don’t survive, and females are needed to establish a population. That point makes a hair collected in Tennessee perhaps more interesting than other evidence of the cougar’s eastern expansion. According to TWRA’s DNA testing, it came from a female cougar “with genetics similar to cougars in South Dakota.” A few of the cougars found in the Northeast in the past 70 years were “likely released or escaped captives,” and “some cats had a South American genetic profile,” according to the USFWS species profile of the eastern cougar.

A 2012 study compiled confirmed locations of cougars outside of their established range during 1990-2008. The results suggest, according to TWRA, that the cougar “is recolonizing the Midwest with a range expansion eastward.” Missouri has had more than 60 sightings of pumas since 1994 and, perhaps most significantly, the first female was confirmed there in January 2017, Kocka says. Pointing to the large expanses between Tennessee and established cougar populations, TWRA concludes that “it will likely be a long time” before cougars establish a population even that far east.

Several experts I’ve talked with about cougars have noted one of the ways we’d know if they were here: dogs. A lot of Virginia hunters use dogs, Kocka says, and in response to being pursued by dogs, cougars usually climb a tree where available. So far, no hunters have reported their dogs treeing a puma.

© 2018 Pam Owen

Speaking of Bigfoot. . .

When it comes to the sasquatch, aka Bigfoot, scientists have found no evidence of it either, according to a July 1, 2014, article in the journal “Science”. A lot of the reported “sightings” of sasquatches have been proven to be hoaxes of one sort or another, but DNA testing of 57 hairs the scientists collected from “Bigfoot enthusiasts and museums around the world” came from a wide range of distinctly nonmythical subjects.

Some were found to not be hairs at all but rather plant or glass fibers, and seven hairs didn’t provide enough DNA to determine the species they did come from. The others turned out to be from various bear species, or from horses, wolves or dogs, a human, cows, raccoons, deer “and even a porcupine.”

From 1930 to recently, evidence has also been collected across the Himalayan mountain range from what some people believe to be a yeti, aka Abominable Snowman. The evidence includes scat, hair and bones. Recent DNA testing of some of some of these samples produced interesting results, according to a Nov. 30, 2017, Smithsonian article.

Most of the samples turned out to come from Himalayan and Tibetan brown bears. The other samples were from an Asian black bear or a dog. The big surprise for the scientists was that one of the bear hairs came from the region of Himalayan brown bears but partly matched that of polar bears, suggesting these two species could be cross-breeding.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”