Mountain Lions: Are they in Northern New England?
By Margaret Gillespie

You are stopping by the country store in a small New Hampshire town for a
few essentials and overhear an animated conversation about a large cat with a
long tail that was seen at first light, skirting a local backyard.  

The group finally arrives at the consensus that the creature had to be a
mountain lion!  You are left pondering: "But, are there mountain lions in New

First, Background About Mountain Lions

Writers are encouraged to approach topics they know best from experience so
that is where I am going to start.  

In January 2003, two eight-week old mountain lion kittens arrived at the Squam
Lakes Natural Science Center from Montana to be the focal point of a new

The male and female litter mates had been orphaned in a mountainous region,
and previously cared for through Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Helena.   

When we first set eyes on them, we marveled at their spotted camouflage coats
and sky-blue eyes.  These spots help conceal young as they cavort around the
den entrance but fade to tawny brown by six months, while eye color changes
to dusky hazel.  Eyesight develops so that their night vision is six times better
than a human’s and although mountain lions also hunt by day, they have poor
color vision.

Despite being house cat size on arrival, these kittens had huge unwieldy paws
and claws to match, designed to help them eventually catch prey and make
them adept climbers.  

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the new arrivals came as I entered to feed
them on one of the first days. The female opened her mouth as if to meow but a
chirping whistle came out -- this is how the young communicate their location
to the mother.  

As the young mountain lions grew in leaps and bounds, so did their
coordination and development of skills essential to survival as adults.  

Mountain Lions: Closest Living Relatives of Cheetahs

Ambushing, stalking and pouncing, using each other as prey, became daily
games.  Ultimately these long-bodied muscular young animals transform into
athletic Olympians of the natural world -- able to jump a length of 30 feet and a
height of 18 feet and run at a speed of 45 mph over short distances!  

Some of what gives them the edge over humans 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 right.  Mountain lions are the closest living relatives of cheetahs!

In April, the two had their first outdoor experience in their new enclosure.  
Cautious but curious and now looking like miniature adults, they explored the
rocks, logs and stream.  In the wild, they would stay with their mother for close
to two years, refining their hunting and survival skills.  

As adults, male mountain lions weigh between 145 and 165 pounds on average
while females are about 75 to 100 pounds.  Ranging over territories from 8 to
500 square miles, these cats seek habitat in wilderness areas with cover to hide
them and ungulates like deer or elk to provide the major food source.   

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.  Hare, porcupines, raccoons,
squirrels, rabbits, beaver and muskrats also are part of their diet.

But, Are There Mountain Lions in New Hampshire?

Let’s get back to that persistent question: Can you see a mountain lion in New

Mountain lions are found in 12 western states and the southern tip of Florida.  
There have been random official reports of these cats in New England states
surrounding New Hampshire and DNA testing on scat found in 2002 in NH’s
Ossipee Mountains was confirmed to be from a mountain lion.  

However, answers do not come easily; it is unclear whether the NH animal was
originally a captive, released into the wild.  

The mystical mountain lion remains elusive, but not at the Squam Lakes
Natural Science Center!  For a sure bet, come and visit our Mountain Lion
Exhibit, constructed with appreciation to its donors, the Lehner and Kingsbury
families, the Meredith Village Savings Bank Community Fund, the Parker
Nelson Foundation, the McIninch Foundation and the Davis Conservation
Foundation.  The mountain lions are here.  Come see how they’ve grown!

About the author: Margaret Gillespie is a Naturalist at the Squam Lakes Natural
Science Center, Holderness, NH,  a private, nonprofit organization opening a window to
the natural world. For more information visit their website or call (603) 968-7194; Email:
The Heart of New England
Mountain Lion  - Photo Courtesy of Squam Lakes Natural Science Center
The Heart of New England
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