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4 Types of Wild Cats in California (With Pictures)

If you think California is all glamorous Hollywood and gorgeous beaches, think again! The state is also home to vast wilderness areas where mountains, forests, and deserts abound. Many species of wildlife inhabit those regions, including wild cats. In this article, we’ll examine the 4 types of wild cats in California: two living and two extinct. We’ll also give you tips on staying safe from these animals while enjoying time in the wilds of California.

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The 4 Types of Wild Cats in California

1. Mountain Lion

Mountain Lion
Image Credit: PublicDomainPictures, Pixabay
Scientific name Puma concolor
Size Males 130-150 pounds, Females 65-90 pounds

Mountain lions are found all over California: anywhere with enough prey (mostly deer) to keep them well-fed. An estimated 4,000-6,000 mountain lions live in the state, but because they are solitary and generally keep away from people, they are rarely sighted.

Also called pumas, cougars, or panthers, these wild cats have light tan coats with black-tipped ears and tails. Mountain lions live in habitats including deserts and forests, from sea level up to 10,000 feet in elevation. They maintain home ranges of up to 100 square miles and hunt alone at night, preying on deer, bighorn sheep, elk, and smaller mammals if necessary.

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2. Bobcat

Bobcat on a trunk
Image Credit: Piqsels
Scientific name Lynx rufus
Size 20 pounds

Bobcats are the most common wild cat species in North America. They live throughout the United States, Southern Canada, and many parts of Mexico. In California, bobcats are found in many different habitats and commonly live near human communities, including several populations in the mountains surrounding Los Angeles.

Like mountain lions, bobcats are primarily active at night or during dawn and dusk, making sightings relatively uncommon. Bobcats are generally reddish-brown with dark spots and stripes. Their undersides are white, with a short tail and tufted ears and faces. They prey primarily on small mammals and birds. Because bobcats are often found near human development, they are threatened by traffic accidents, poisoning, and diseases.

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Extinct Wild Cats

3. Saber-toothed Cat

Saber-toothed Cat
Image Credit: Sfocato, Shutterstock
Scientific name Panthera atrox
Size 350-620 pounds

As one of two now extinct big cat species once inhabited California, saber-toothed cats died around 10,000 years ago. Thousands of its fossils have been discovered in the La Brea tar pits of Los Angeles, leading it to be named the official state fossil. The cats belonged to a now extinct branch of the feline family and are not related to any large living cats, although they are sometimes incorrectly referred to as “saber-toothed tigers.”

Scientists believe the cats could roar and may have lived in social groups similar to African lions. They hunted large mammals like bison and camels, attacking by ambush like modern-day wild cats. Saber-toothed cats most likely lived in wooded areas. They probably looked like modern bobcats, except they were vastly larger and with the characteristic extra-long upper canine teeth that reached nearly a foot in length.

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4. American Lion

American Lion
Image Credit: jean wimmerlin, Pixabay
Scientific name Panthera atrox
Size 500-800 pounds

American lions are the largest extinct cat species to once live in North America, including California. Some may have grown as large as 1,000 pounds! American lion fossils have been discovered throughout North America, including California, Maryland, southern Alaska, and Mexico.

They most likely preferred to live in open woodland and grassland habitat, and they hunted large mammals, including mammoths. American lions probably went extinct around 11,000 years ago. Scientists believe they are closely related to another extinct species, the Eurasian cave lion. American lions probably lived in small groups like African lion prides today.

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Staying Safe Around California’s Wild Cats

As we mentioned, mountain lions and bobcats prefer to avoid human contact and are usually active at night. However, because so many Californians enjoy hiking and outdoor activities, it’s essential to know how to stay safe around wild cats. In addition, large felines often live near densely populated human locations, making the chances of an encounter possible even for those who don’t deliberately enter wilderness areas.

People living in rural areas need to be more proactive about keeping wild cats away, not as much because they pose a threat to humans but because they will prey on livestock and pets if other prey is scarce. Human attacks by mountain lions are rare, with only six documented fatal attacks since 1890.

Wild Cat
Image Credit: Joshua J. Cotten, Unsplash

Keeping Wild Cats Away From Human Dwellings

The California Department of Wildlife suggests several steps those living in wild cat (especially mountain lion) territory can take to keep the animals away from their homes and animals.

  • Keep pet food stored indoors
  • Don’t let pets outside at night, dawn, or dusk
  • Provide sturdy shelters for livestock, especially at night
  • Keep brush trimmed to eliminate hiding places for wild cats
  • Install motion-activated lights so wild cats can’t sneak up unnoticed

Also, deer-proofing your property can help keep the mountain lion’s primary food source away, reducing the chances that wild cats will hang around.

Staying Safe During Outdoor Recreation

For those who enjoy hiking and other outdoor activities, the following tips can help keep you safe:

  • Don’t hike or bike alone through known wild cat habitats, especially at dawn, dusk, or nighttime
  • When hiking, stay on trails and keep children and pets close
  • Never approach or corner a wild cat if you see one
  • If a mountain lion or other wild cat approaches, don’t run, crouch, or bend over. Face the animal, make noise, and try to look bigger
  • Stay calm and alert at all times

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While we don’t have to worry about encountering 800-pound American lions in California anymore, co-existing with bobcats and mountain lions is unavoidable, even in the most populated neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

Endless opportunities for outdoor activity are one of the best parts of living in California, and learning to stay safe around wild cats is vital. However, human activity will always be more dangerous to the wild cats than vice versa. Californians need to look for ways to reduce the impact of expanded human development on the wildlife inhabiting the state.

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Featured Image: Wade Lambert, Pixabay