What's in a Name?

The Florida Panther, featured running in this  photo, is a Cat of Many Names
Common names of Puma concolor: Panther, Mountain lion, Cougar, Puma, Catamount, Painter.

Puma have been referred to by many names. As he traveled near the Florida Everglades in 1513, Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca reported seeing a lion. Other 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 puma inhabit many places other than mountains. People in portions of the southern and eastern United States referred to the big cat as a "painter," 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 puma was referred to as "tiger." Tigertail, a famous Indian leader of the Second Seminole War (1835-42), was named for the panther skin he wore from his waist during an Indian ball game. The name Tiger lives on among contemporary Seminole and Miccosukee Indians. In the 1960s, Miccosukee leader Buffalo Tiger was instrumental in gaining federal recognition for the Miccosukee tribe.

Florida 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 believed to alleviate muscle disease and to increase strength and endurance.

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 this species.

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