From the top of the panhandle to the tip of Texas, from the plains in the West to the pines in the East, there are opportunities, wherever you are, to catch a glimpse of the wild cats of Texas. Texas is home to three main species of cats: mountain lions, bobcats, and ocelots, all three of which belong to the Felidae family. There are 31 species of cats in this family. Each roams in different areas of Texas, making local wildlife unique no matter where in the Lone Star State you decide to explore!
If you ever think you have spotted a cougar, puma, panther, painter, or catamount, you have probably seen a mountain lion. Mountain lions go by all of these names, and many times, people think they have seen different kinds of large cats despite it being just the one.
The mountain lion is a large, slender cat, typically with a small reddish-colored head and a long tail. Male mountain lions can weigh up to 150 pounds and stretch as long as 8.5 feet in length. This is the largest cat in the Felidae family. Mountain lions have a light, tawny brown body which can appear as different shades of gray to almost black depending on lighting.
“There has never been a black mountain lion,” Jonah Evans, a mammalogist for Texas Parks and Wildlife, said. “Contrary to what people have said, they do not actually exist.”
Mountain lions reside in a wide variety of habitat types including canyons, rim rocks, forest areas, and lowlands. However, they prefer places with dense brush so they can hide.
Mountain lions have a wide distribution of spread, ranging from Canada, throughout the United States, all the way down to the Andes Mountains in South America. In Texas, mountain lions primarily roam in the west, south, and central regions. However, there have been reported sightings in all 254 Texas counties according to Texas Parks and Wildlife records.
Bobcats are a thriving species of big cats in Texas due to their adaptability, physical abilities, and secretive nature. Since they are nocturnal, they are not very likely to be spotted by humans. However, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife, scratches on a tree trunk where the cat sharpens its claws and climbing scratches are frequently found on “lookout” trees.
There are two types of bobcats in Texas; the desert bobcat is found in the west and northwest regions of the state while the Texas bobcat roams throughout the rest of the state. Bobcats are quite populous in the South Texas brush country.
Bobcats are about twice the size of a domestic cat with a muscular physique and prominently pointed ears. Their coloring varies but they are typically shades of cream with tufts of gray and brown blended in. Speckled with spots, their coats provide them with camouflage, allowing them to blend in with the natural surroundings. Where male mountain lions bulked in their weight, a male bobcat may only reach 35 pounds. Bobcats have incredible eyesight which provides excellent vision, day or night. During the day, their pupils become tiny vertical slits, while at night, the pupil fills most of the eye, allowing for the best possible vision no matter the time of day.
Bobcats live in a wide variety of habitats, ranging from swamps to mountain ranges. They prefer wooded areas with trees for climbing and watching. Additionally, they are not picky about their meals, preying on small animals, such as mice, up to large animals, such as deer. Bobcats are on the move three hours before sunset until about midnight and then again from before dawn until three hours after sunrise.
In Texas, the bobcats are extensively hunted so taking bobcat pelts by trappers is strictly regulated.
The ocelot is a beautiful, spotted cat, similar in size to the bobcat. While they are spotted on their body, they have parallel stripes running down their neck and dark rings around their long tails. Additionally, they have white spots on their rounded ears. Ocelots reside in dense, thorny shrub lands in the southernmost part of Texas. They seek out habitats where they will be covered.
According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, the shrub lands where ocelots reside have been converted for agricultural and urban use in the last 60 years. In addition to their habitat loss, road mortality is a recent reason for decline.
The ocelot is a rare large cat in Texas; there are less than 100 left in the state, which puts it on the endangered species list.
Jaguars and Jaguarundi
The jaguar was once the largest spotted American cat in Texas, weighing up to 200 pounds. This cat enjoyed water-side habitats and could be spotted on the beaches, in other countries, digging up turtle eggs for a tasty treat.
The jaguarundi, on the other hand, excels in jumping and being light on its feet and is only slightly larger than a domestic house cat.
Both used to be residents of the southernmost parts of Texas. However, the last jaguar in Texas was killed in the 1950s and the last confirmed jaguarundi in Texas was in 1986. Both have likely been extirpated in Texas due to habitat loss and hunting.
The big cats of Texas generally roam the lands in the cover of night, keeping to themselves as much as possible. They hide under the cover of brush or watch from the tops of the trees, generally minding their own business.
“The only cat that poses a risk to people is the mountain lion. Even then, attacks are extremely rare,” Evans said. “There have been 20 confirmed fatal attacks on people by mountain lions between 1890 and 2011. Compare that to about 20 deaths per year by domestic dogs.”
If you find yourself face-to-face with one of these large cats, it is important to look big, pick up your children, yell, and throw rocks; your goal is to seem intimidating. The biggest tip of all: do not run.
Each of these animals resides in habitats that are frequently destroyed for development. It is important to have good land management practices and support conservation efforts to prevent the remaining big cats in Texas from becoming endangered or worse, extirpated.