Mountain lion, noun: a large, powerful tawny-brown cat that sounds like a squeaky toy. 

That's right! Cougar speak is not what you think – but it's not your fault. Mountain lions (Puma concolor) often make their onscreen entrances with a mighty roar, but a hardened larynx means they physically cannot make that sound in real life. In fact, most movie-star mountain lions are voiced over by their big cat kin.

"Regular mountain lion talk is chirping and squeaking – not very lionish!" says National Wildlife Federation California director Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, who recently published a book on living with mountain lions. But they do make other, more menacing noises when the time calls for it. "The mating sound is akin to a women screaming, like she is being murdered," she says.

That bloodcurdling call is known as "caterwauling":

Until the advent of camera traps, scientists didn't really know what kinds of vocalizations these animals made – and we're still learning the nuances of their "language." We can really only speculate about what our Colorado cat is saying, but this appears to be a contact call – a way to see who else is out there.

In a blog post for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, animal communications specialist Miguel Ordeñana explains that high pitched calls allow sound to travel well through the cats's woodland habitat. But he also notes that most cougar communication is non-vocal.

That makes sense because mountain lions live solitary lives and defend immense territory. Single cats in Canada, for example, have been known to patrol some 400 square miles. When you can't be everywhere at once, leaving traces, like urine and scat, behind is an efficient way to ensure rivals know where you stomp. The same can be said about scratch marks on trees or in the soil.

The latter, known as "scraping" looks a lot like what your pet dog does after answering nature's call:

"Adult males, especially dominant males usually delineate territory boundaries, display dominance, or express sexual status using scrapes," writes Ordeñana.


Top header image: National Park Service