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Missouri Mountain Lion
Younger Than First Thought

A cougar killed in a traffic mishap on Highway 54 near Fulton last week probably was looking for a new home.

August 22, 2003

Missouri Mountain LionJEFFERSON CITY--A detailed examination of a mountain lion killed near Fulton last week showed the animal was younger than first thought. Biologists learned what the big cat had eaten recently, and they took tissue samples for DNA testing.

The 105-pound mountain lion (also known as a cougar) died when it was struck by an automobile on Highway 54 shortly before midnight Aug. 11. Wildlife biologists, a veterinarian and a taxidermist gathered at the Missouri Department of Conservation's Resource Science Center in Columbia Aug. 13 to perform a necropsy -- the veterinary equivalent of an autopsy -- on the animal's carcass.

Conservation Department Resource Scientist Dave Hamilton said a thorough external examination showed that the big cat still had dark spots on its flanks and hindquarters, and barring on the inside of its front legs.

"Those markings are very prominent on kittens, and they fade slowly as the animal matures," said Hamilton. "They disappear entirely by the age of three. Judging by this animal's appearance, we think it was between a year and a year and a half old."

Ticks from the mountain lion's skin have been sent to a laboratory for identification. If any of these are not indigenous to Missouri, they could provide clues about where the cat came from.

Investigators also conducted an internal examination and concluded that the mountain lion died instantly. Hamilton said the impact separated several of its neck bones and broke both front legs.

The mountain lion seemed to have been in good health before the accident. Hamilton said it had ample fat deposits around its internal organs. It wasn't fat, however, as many captive animals are. The teeth were clean. Captive animals sometimes have plaque deposits on their teeth and gums from eating commercially prepared food.

Investigators found a gray squirrel in the cat's stomach. The squirrel carcass carried numerous fly eggs, indicating the animal had been dead some time before it was eaten. In the lower intestines, they found hair, which also has been sent to a lab for identification.

Hamilton said the necropsy didn't answer the question of whether the mountain lion was strictly wild or if it might have been kept in captivity at one time. "It showed no signs of captivity. That's about all we can say."

Researchers took tissue samples for DNA testing. This will determine whether the mountain lion is more closely related to North American mountain lions or to those from South America. Most captive mountain lions come from South American stock.

The mountain lion's pelt will be mounted for display at a nature center.

Mountain lions were believed to be extirpated from Missouri in 1927, when the last known individual was killed in the state's Bootheel region. The Callaway County mountain lion is the seventh verified sighting in recent years.

The first recent sighting was in 1994, when a man shot a small adult female cougar in Carter County. There is considerable evidence that this was the same animal whose pelt turned up in Texas County four years later.

Mountain lions were video-taped in Reynolds County in 1996, in Christian County in 1997 and in Lewis County in 2000. In 1999, a rabbit hunter saw a mountain lion in Texas County, and the discovery of fresh cougar kills nearby confirmed the sighting. The sixth sighting came last October, when a motorist killed a cougar in Clay County.

The increasing incidence of mountain lion sightings in Missouri parallels neighboring states' experience. Mountain lions used to be rare in South Dakota, but they have a well-established population there today. Nebraska is seeing them more often, and there have been verified sightings in Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Hamilton said Missouri almost certainly has a small population of mountain lions, "a handful." It is impossible to know whether these have migrated into Missouri, which he considers the most likely case, if they are escaped or released captive cougars or if they are descended from native Missouri stock that survived for decades undetected.

So far, said Hamilton, the Conservation Department hasn't seen evidence of cougar reproduction in Missouri, but he said this probably is only a matter of time.

Hamilton said the Conservation Department isn't stocking mountain lions and isn't doing anything to encourage the species' return to Missouri. He said their resurgence is partly a result of Missouri's success in restoring deer, which are cougars' primary food.

Mountain lions are classified as endangered in Missouri, so they are protected by law. However, it is legal to kill mountain lions or other wildlife that threaten people, livestock or pets.

Cougars sometimes attack pets or livestock, and attacks on people are rare. They are shy of humans and normally stay away from areas frequented by people. Missourians who think they see mountain lions are encouraged to contact the nearest conservation agent or Conservation Department office. The agency's Mountain Lion Response Team investigates every report.

"It's natural for people to wonder if they should be afraid for their children or themselves, now that we have seen several mountain lions here," said Hamilton. "I try to encourage them to keep their worries in perspective. More people are killed by bee stings every year in the United States than have been killed by mountain lions in the past 100 years. Your chances of being struck by lightning are better, and children are much, much more likely to be attacked by someone's pet dog than by a mountain lion. We shouldn't let those worries keep us indoors."

Experts say that mountain lions are ambush predators and avoid fights. The best way to avoid attack if you encounter a mountain lion is to appear large and threatening. Standing tall, raising a shirt or jacket over your head with your arms, talking firmly in a loud voice and throwing objects all can help deter an attack. Don't lean over or turn your back on a threatening cougar.

If attacked, fight back. People have stopped mountain lion attacks by hitting them in the face, stabbing them with sharp objects and gouging their eyes.

- Jim Low -


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