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Cougar Makes An Incredible Journey

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Every year, biologists from the Wildlife Division investigate reports of cougars (also called mountain lions) in Connecticut. Until last June, physical evidence of a naturally occurring cougar had never been found. The nearest established wild populations are in Florida and the Dakotas.

In June 2011, a large cat was reported in Greenwich and a blurry photograph was taken. The photograph was sent to the Wildlife Division for examination and it was determined that the animal was possibly a cougar. Within a week, a cougar was killed in Milford on the Wilbur Cross Parkway. The vehicle-kill was the first confirmation of a cougar in the state in more than 100 years. A broad investigation ensued, and eventually the story of an amazing feat emerged.

An Extensive Investigation

The cougar, a young male, appeared to be two to five years old; it had not been declawed or neutered; and there was no evidence of a collar. A necropsy showed that the cougar was healthy, the stomach was empty, and there were porcupine quills under its skin. DNA testing revealed the most surprising result – the cougar’s DNA matched the subpopulation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Researchers compared the Connecticut sample to the genetics of other cougars found outside their known range. Again, a surprising result – the DNA matched DNA from hair and scat samples collected from a cougar that had been tracked by biologists in Minnesota and Wisconsin 18 months earlier! Subsequently, DNA tests also confirmed that this same cougar had been seen in Lake George, New York, in December 2010.

New Questions

Biologists believe that the cougar traveled eastward from its last confirmed location in northern Wisconsin through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, then through lower Ontario and into upstate New York, eventually making its way to southwestern Connecticut.

Subadults of many mammal species exhibit dispersal behavior. Males usually disperse farther than females, and some females stay within their mother’s home range. Reasons for dispersal include better food resources, reduced competition with other males, and increased mating opportunities. It appears that this young male cougar kept traveling because it did not encounter habitat occupied with other cougars.

Cougar populations have increased in many western states. Although individuals will disperse from these populations, most will be young males traveling modest distances. Movements by young females will be even shorter, limiting the ability for these populations to spread. It is unlikely that New England will soon witness another long distance disperser.