A detailed examination of a mountain lion killed near
Fulton last week showed the animal was younger than
first thought. Biologists learned what the big cat had
eaten recently, and they took tissue samples for DNA
The 105-pound mountain lion (also known as a
cougar) died when it was struck by an automobile on
Highway 54 shortly before midnight Aug. 11. Wildlife
biologists, a veterinarian and a taxidermist gathered at
the Missouri Department of Conservation's Resource
Science Center in Columbia Aug. 13 to perform a
necropsy -- the veterinary equivalent of an autopsy -- on
the animal's carcass.
Conservation Department Resource Scientist Dave
Hamilton said a thorough external examination showed
that the big cat still had dark spots on its flanks and
hindquarters, and barring on the inside of its front legs.
"Those markings are very prominent on kittens, and
they fade slowly as the animal matures," said Hamilton.
"They disappear entirely by the age of 3. Judging by this
animal's appearance, we think it was between a year
and a year and a half old."
Ticks from the mountain lion's skin have been sent to a
laboratory for identification. If any of these are not
indigenous to Missouri, they could provide clues about
where the cat came from.
Investigators also conducted an internal examination
and concluded that the mountain lion died instantly.
Hamilton said the impact separated several of its neck
bones and broke both front legs.
The mountain lion seemed to have been in good health
before the accident. Hamilton said it had ample fat
deposits around its internal organs. It wasn't fat,
however, as many captive animals are. The teeth were
clean. Captive animals sometimes have plaque
deposits on their teeth and gums from eating
commercially prepared food.
Investigators found a gray squirrel in the cat's stomach.
The squirrel carcass carried numerous fly eggs,
indicating the animal had been dead some time before
it was eaten. In the lower intestines, they found hair,
which also has been sent to a lab for identification.
Hamilton said the necropsy didn't answer the question
of whether the mountain lion was strictly wild or if it
might have been kept in captivity at one time. "It showed
no signs of captivity. That's about all we can say."
Researchers took tissue samples for DNA testing. This
will determine whether the mountain lion is more
closely related to North American mountain lions or to
those from South America. Most captive mountain lions
come from South American stock.
The mountain lion's pelt will be mounted for display at
a nature center.
Mountain lions were believed to be extirpated from
Missouri in 1927, when the last known individual was
killed in the state's Bootheel region. The Callaway
County mountain lion is the seventh verified sighting in
The first recent sighting was in 1994, when a man shot
a small adult female cougar in Carter County. There is
considerable evidence that this was the same animal
whose pelt turned up in Texas County four years later.
Mountain lions were video-taped in Reynolds County in
1996, in Christian County in 1997 and in Lewis County
in 2000. In 1999 a rabbit hunter saw a mountain lion in
Texas County, and the discovery of fresh cougar kills
nearby confirmed the sighting. The sixth sighting came
last October when a motorist killed a cougar in Clay
The increasing incidence of mountain lion sightings in
Missouri parallels neighboring states' experience.
Mountain lions used to be rare in South Dakota, but
they have a well-established population there today.
Nebraska is seeing them more often, and there have
been verified sightings in Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Hamilton said Missouri almost certainly has a small
population of mountain lions, "a handful." It is
impossible to know whether these have migrated into
Missouri, which he considers the most likely case, if
they are escaped or released captive cougars or if they
are descended from native Missouri stock that survived
for decades undetected.
So far, said Hamilton, the Conservation Department
hasn't seen evidence of cougar reproduction in
Missouri, but he said this probably is only a matter of
Hamilton said the Conservation Department isn't
stocking mountain lions and isn't doing anything to
encourage the species' return to Missouri. He said their
resurgence is partly a result of Missouri's success in
restoring deer, which are cougars' primary food.
Mountain lions are classified as endangered in
Missouri, so they are protected by law. However, it is
legal to kill mountain lions or other wildlife that threaten
people, livestock or pets.
Cougars sometimes attack pets or livestock, but
attacks on people are rare. They are shy of humans
and normally stay away from areas frequented by
people. Missourians who think they see mountain lions
are encouraged to contact the nearest conservation
agent or Conservation Department office. The agency's
Mountain Lion Response Team investigates every
"It's natural for people to wonder if they should be afraid
for their children or themselves, now that we have seen
several mountain lions here," said Hamilton. "I try to
encourage them to keep their worries in perspective.
More people are killed by bee stings every year in the
United States than have been killed by mountain lions
in the past 100 years. Your chances of being struck by
lightning are better, and children are much, much more
likely to be attacked by someone's pet dog than by a
mountain lion. We shouldn't let those worries keep us
Experts say that mountain lions are ambush predators
and avoid fights. The best way to avoid attack if you
encounter a mountain lion is to appear large and
threatening. Standing tall, raising a shirt or jacket over
your head with your arms, talking firmly in a loud voice
and throwing objects all can help deter an attack. Don't
lean over or turn your back on a threatening cougar.
If attacked, fight back. People have stopped mountain
lion attacks by hitting them in the face, stabbing them
with sharp objects and gouging their eyes.