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What’s in a name?

Cougars have been referred to by many names. Traveling near the Everglades in 1513 Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca reported seeing a lion. cougar namesOther European explorers believed they were seeing tigers or panthers (a name used for African leopards). European settlers modified lion to mountain lion, a name still used today in the western United States, although cougars inhabit many places other than mountains. Those in portions of the southern and eastern United States referred to the big cat as "painter," which is probably a dialect variation of panther. New Englanders coined the term "catamount" or cat of the mountain.

In Florida until the 19th century when "panther" became the most common term, the cougar was referred to as "tiger" (Alvarez 1993). A famous Indian leader of the Second Seminole War (1835-42) was named Tigertail after the panther skin he wore from his waist during an Indian ball game (Mahon 1967). The name Tiger lives on among contemporary Seminoles and Miccosukees. In the 1960s Miccosukee leader Buffalo Tiger was instrumental in gaining federal recognition for the Miccosukee tribe (Kersey 1992).

"Cougar" and "puma" both derive from South American Indian languages. "Cougar" comes from Tupi, an Amazonian Indian language, and translates as "false deer," showing an understanding of the modern biological principle that the predator often blends into the same habitat as its prey (Kobalenko 1997). "Puma" derives from the Quechua Indian language of Peru and means "mighty magic animal."

In North America most Native American languages had their own name for the big cat. In the southern U.S. the Cherokee called it Klandagi or "lord of the forest"; the Chickasaw called it Ko-icto or "cat of god." The Cree called it Katalgar or "greatest of wild hunters," and the Zuni called it "father of the game."

The translation of the Navajo name for cougar is "walking silently among the rocks" (Bolgiano 1995). The Cochiti of New Mexico carved life-sized stone statues of cougars. Natives of Puget Sound called cougars "fire cats" and believed that each fall the cat carried fire from the Olympic mountains to Mt. Rainier, starting a forest fire along the way. The Potawatomi of the Great Lakes region both feared and revered the Underwater Panther, the master of the underworld and a blend of the panther, deer, snake, and bird of prey.

In Florida the Seminoles refer to the panther as coo-wah-chobee - "Big Cat." Seminole society is divided into groups called clans based on descent through females and named after animals. One of the Seminole clans is the panther clan. Others are the bird, snake, and deer clans. Traditionally Seminole medicine people have come from the panther clan. The panther is thought to be a favorite of the Creator and to have special powers. Panther tails and claws are thought to alleviate muscle disease and to increase strength and endurance (Weisman 1989).

The Seminoles caution their children to be quiet in the early evening when the panther is likely to be hunting. They believe a panther whose prey has been frightened away will bring illness on the village.

Although cougar, mountain lion (often shortened to “lion”), and - in Florida - panther, are the most common names used by biologists in North America to refer to this animal, puma is often used in the scientific literature to avoid confusion among the wide ranging audience interested in Puma concolor.

Continue to: Scientific Classification