†P. c. couguar
|Puma concolor couguar|
Felis concolor couguar
Eastern cougar or eastern puma (Puma concolor couguar) refers to the extinct or extirpated population of cougars that once lived in northeastern North America, which some authorities have considered to be a subspecies. The eastern cougars were unofficially deemed extinct by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service evaluation in 2011. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formally removed the Eastern cougar from the endangered species list and declared it to be extinct in 2018. The Canadian Wildlife Service has taken no position on the question. Cougars are still common in Western North America; individuals from that population are frequently seen in the Eastern cougar's former range.
History of taxonomy
In 1792, Robert Kerr of the Royal Physical Society and Royal Society of Surgeons assigned the name Felis couguar to eastern North America cougars north of Florida. John Audubon in 1851 believed that cougars in both North and South America were indistinguishable. The eastern cougar was first assigned to the subspecies Felis concolor couguar and the Florida panther to F. c. coryi. Young and Goldman based their description of the eastern subspecies on their examination of eight of the existing 26 historic specimens.
In 1955, Jackson described a new subspecies, the Wisconsin puma (F. c. schorgeri), from a small sample of skulls.
A 1981 taxonomy by Hall accepted F. c. schorgeri, the Wisconsin puma, and also extended the range of the eastern puma into Nova Scotia and mapped the Florida panther's (F. c. coryi) range as far north as South Carolina and southwestern Tennessee.
In 2000, Culver et al., recommended that based on recent genetic research, all North American cougars be classified as a single subspecies, Puma concolor couguar following the oldest named subspecies (Kerr in 1792).
The 2005 edition of Mammal Species of the World followed Culver's recommendations. This revision was made by Dr. W. Chris Wozencraft of Bethel University, Indiana, as the sole reviewer. However, the publication's Web site as of 2011, as well as that of its affiliate, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, continued to maintain the Puma concolor couguar (both western and eastern cougars) as a subspecies of Puma concolor.
Judith Eger, a scientist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Ontario, and the chair of the American Society of Mammalogists checklist committee, believes that the Culver work was not a proper taxonomic revision, as it offered no evaluation of the existing subspecies of the puma and failed to include morphological, ecological, and behavioral considerations. According to Eger, the Culver revision is only accepted by some puma biologists.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) continues to accept the Young and Goldman taxonomy. "While more recent genetic information introduces significant ambiguities, a full taxonomic analysis is necessary to conclude that a revision to the Young and Goldman (1946) taxonomy is warranted," the agency said in 2011.
As of 2017, the Cat Classification Taskforce of the Cat Specialist Group recognizes only two cougar subspecies: P. c. couguar for North America and possibly Northwest South America, and P. c. concolor for other South American populations.
Uncertainty of survival
A consensus exists among wildlife officials in 21 eastern states that the eastern cougar population has been extirpated from the eastern United States. The federal government of Canada has taken no position on the subspecies' existence, continued or otherwise, and terms the evidence "inconclusive."
The FWS reviewed all available research and other information, and concluded in 2011 that the eastern cougar has been extinct since the 1930s, and recommended that it be removed from its list of endangered species. The agency used the 1946 taxonomy of S.P. Young and E.A. Goldman in defining the eastern cougar subspecies. While noting that some taxonomists in recent years have classified all North American cougars within a single subspecies, the agency's 2011 report said, "a full taxonomic analysis is necessary to conclude that a revision to the Young and Goldman (1946) taxonomy is warranted."
The agency acknowledged the occasional presence of cougars in eastern North America, but believes these are of wanderers from western breeding ranges or escaped captives. Its review expressed skepticism that breeding populations exist north of Florida, noting, among other things, the lack of consistent road kill evidence comparable to known cougar ranges. However, the presence of cougars in the wild — whatever their taxonomy or origin — in eastern North America, continues to be controversial.
Various residents of eastern North America, especially in rural regions, have reported as many as 10,000 cougar sightings since the 1960s, and many continue to believe the subspecies has survived.
Bruce Wright — a wildlife biologist and former student of Aldo Leopold — popularized the idea that a breeding population of cougars persisted in northern New England and the Maritime provinces through a series of articles and books published between 1960 and 1973. Wright based his idea mostly on unconfirmed sightings, track photos, and plaster casts, and photographs of pumas killed in New Brunswick in 1932 and in Maine in 1938.
Since the 1970s, privately run groups have formed in nearly every state to compile and investigate records of cougar sightings. Many of these groups are convinced that breeding populations of cougars exist throughout the region. Some believe that a conspiracy to hide information or secretly reintroduce cougars is actively underway by state and federal governments. Some endeavor to promote the recovery of cougars in eastern North America. Large numbers of cougar sightings have been reliably reported throughout the Midwest.
Possible colonization of east by western cougars
At least several dozen or more reported sightings have been confirmed by biologists, many of whom believe they are accounted for by escaped captives or individual members of the western subspecies that have wandered hundreds of miles from their established breeding ranges in the Dakotas or elsewhere in the west.
Eastern U.S. reported sightings, many of which reviewed in the recent federal report, in various locations, including Michigan (See Upper Peninsula), Wisconsin, Southern Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Connecticut, New York Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, Vermont, Alabama Louisiana, and Tennessee.
Until around 1990, reports of mountain lions in the Midwest and East were highly influenced by the "Bigfoot factor", according to Mark Dowling, co-founder of the Eastern Cougar Network. "None of it was really real," he said in an interview, but the situation has changed dramatically since that time according to Dowling, whose group collects and disseminates data on the shifting mountain lion population.
Dowling said in 2003 that sightings in the eastern half of the nation, including Michigan, etc., were "almost certainly" escaped captives, but he added that the notion that (Western) cougars "will eventually reach New Jersey" is a reasonable prediction, in part due to increased populations of whitetail deer.
However, some of these cougars found far in the east were established to be of western origin. As noted in an opinion piece by David Baron in the New York Times, concerning a cougar killed by a car in Connecticut in 2011:
"Wildlife officials, who at first assumed the cat was a captive animal that had escaped its owners, examined its DNA and concluded that it was a wild cougar from the Black Hills of South Dakota. It had wandered at least 1,500 miles before meeting its end at the front of an SUV in Connecticut. That is one impressive walkabout.
"You have to appreciate this cat’s sense of irony, too. The cougar showed up in the East just three months after the Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern cougar extinct, a move that would exempt the officially nonexistent subspecies of the big cat from federal protection. Perhaps this red-state cougar traveled east to send a message to Washington: the federal government can make pronouncements about where cougars are not supposed to be found, but a cat’s going to go where a cat wants to go."
Recolonization is entirely dependent upon dispersing subadult females, who typically range far less than subadult males. While subadult females with Black Hills DNA have been documented since 2015 in Tennessee, Missouri and Iowa, as of 2018, the easternmost breeding colony north of Florida is the Niobrara River Valley in central Nebraska.
A 1998 study for Canada's national Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada concluded "that there is no objective evidence (actual cougar specimens or other unequivocal confirmation) for the continuous presence of cougars since the last century anywhere in eastern Canada or the eastern United States outside of Florida." Based on this, in 1999, the magazine Canadian Geographic reported that for the previous half century, a debate over whether or not Canada's eastern woods host a cougar species all its own has raged. "Now the answer appears to be 'no.' Experts say past sightings were cases of mistaken identification."
However, the Canadian committee's website as of 2011 says that data are "insufficient" to draw conclusions regarding the subspecies’ continued existence, or even whether it ever existed at all.
In March 2011, an official with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources stated that cougars are present in the province. This official said individual cougars in Ontario may be escaped zoo animals or pets or may have migrated from the western parts of North America.
The privately run Ontario Puma Foundation estimates that 550 pumas are in the province and their numbers are increasing steadily to a sustainable population. However, no evidence of breeding has been documented east of Saskatchewan.
In 2011, the FWS opened an extensive review into the status of the eastern cougar. In 2015, the agency determined the eastern cougar no longer warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act and planned to de-list it. On January 22, 2018 the de-listing became final and they were officially declared extinct. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, "The eastern cougar was extinct well before it was protected under the Endangered Species Act, as was the case with eight of the other 10 species that have been de-listed for extinction."
In 2015, a group of students and scholars at Pennsylvania State University formed a research group to sequence the mitochondrial DNA genome of this extinct subspecies. The Nittany Lion genome project took samples from preserved Eastern cougar skins to obtain DNA for sequencing and further analysis. Complete mitochondrial DNA genome sequences were obtained for five of the six individuals sampled, and the results were compared to previously published mountain lion sequences. The researchers found that "Nittany Lions are not more similar to each other than to individuals from the Western U.S. and Florida," which strengthens the position that all North American mountain lions are a single subspecies.
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