Why do we mistake bobcats for mountain lions?
The 2 wildcats of Orange County are much more different than you think
There seems to be a lot of controversy about which animals are being seen at certain locations. While this is not an isolated predicament , Orange County seems to get a lot of this mix up. Each time someone posts about seeing a mountain lion on social media, it tends to bring a lot of attention and arguing, so here's an article to make it easier for everyone. This is such a common issue that National Geographic has even written an article about it.
I'm a wildlife photographer and camera trapper in Orange County, this is specifically what I do and what I specialize in. I track animals by looking at prints along with other methods. Over the years of doing this, I have gotten quite familiar with the preferred types of routes and terrain of mountain lions and bobcats. For those wondering what makes me qualified to be the spokesperson of this: Other than the biologists at UC Davis that studies these mountain lions with tracking devices, my life revolves around the wild animals of Orange County. Also, because of my popular social media presence about the wild side or Orange County, I get many posts forwarded to me about people claiming to see mountain lions. I'd say around 99.9% of the people that reside in this county don't have a ton of knowledge specifically regarding this, many people think they do but really, the people reporting these incidents are almost always people that are not familiar with these animals. I have yet to be proven wrong, however, the people reporting these claims tend to always be dead set on being correct no matter what, even if they're very obviously incorrect. That's where part of the problem lies, when people that don't know what they're talking about will not admit being wrong or take advice from those who actually know what they're talking about.
I'm not here to directly tell people they're wrong or they don't know what they're talking about, but I'm here to help educate about these animals and their differences because when people falsely make claims to see certain animals, it could put fear into peoples minds unnecessarily.
To make it simple, mountains lions roam the Santa Ana Mountain Range and the foothills/canyons directly connected to them. Bobcats roam many wilderness areas in the Santa Ana Mountain Range as well as isolated wilderness areas not connected to them like Laguna Beach area. If there is enough wilderness space for bobcats to hunt and find small mammals or rodents, they can survive. Mountain lions however, need a lot of space since they can easily roam 50-100 miles. This means that if an area doesn't have that much space, mountain lions would be roaming through neighborhoods and they would also be caught on home surveillance systems which many homes have now days. Basically, if a mountain lion roamed through a place like Laguna Beach, it would be probably one of the most well documented mountain lions in the country, there would be photos and videos of it all over the place as it gets shared around social media, it would be a very big deal. Laguna Beach is mainly mentioned here since it seems as if that's the most common place that mountain lions are incorrectly reported. I get sent so many posts about mountain lion sightings in the Laguna Beach wilderness areas but not once has anyone ever gotten a photo, video, photo of prints, or any actual proof of a legit mountain lion sighting. What's weird about that is that other areas like in the Santa Ana's, whenever there's a mountain lion sighting reported, there's almost always a photo or video that someone got with their phone camera, which we all have handy. I have actually seen some photos and videos of these mountain lion claims in places like Laguna Beach, every single one has always turned out to be a bobcat or a house cat. Yes you read that right, I have gotten several images sent to me of people swearing they got a mountain lion on camera but it turned out to be a 5-10 lb domestic cat. It's understandable that people can mistake some animals for others especially if their life doesn't revolve around them or their sightings. It is extremely rare for these people claiming to see mountain lions actually admit to being incorrect, it actually surprises me when people admit to being wrong. This goes to show the types of mindsets of the people who are making these claims, they have convinced themselves so much that they saw a mountain lion that they won't even listen to reason or knowledge from those who know what they're talking about. The thing is, many people want to have a cool story about the time they saw a mountain lion, "it was so scary!" It's something we do as humans. The majority of mountain lion reports I see say they saw a baby mountain with its tail cut off. Now, it could be possible that a baby mountain lion got separated from its mother somehow but it would be pretty rare and very weird for a mother to just abandon her kitten. But let's just say it is possible, now you have to understand that almost every single reporting is just that, a baby mountain lion. This is where the confusion answers itself: what do you think you saw, a baby mountain lion with its tail cut off or a bobcat? I have never seen any photo or video of a mountain lion with its tail cut off, that would also be so extremely rare that it would be a big deal if you in fact saw that.
As for the areas with the most commonly reported cases of mistaken identity: Laguna Beach, Aliso Viejo, Chino Hills State Park, and Carbon Canyon. None of these areas have had a confirmed mountain lion sighting in many, many years none in recent times within the last 20+ years since Orange County became very developed. Coincidentally, every one of these locations has populations of bobcats that are quite common. If you ask a park ranger at any of these areas, they will also tell you that they get mountain lion sightings reported to them almost daily, yet they have never seen any proof of one, no scat, prints, or prey carcasses that would come from a mountain lion. These areas are also some of the most heavily used wilderness areas by humans which means the odds of someone getting a mountain lion on camera are much greater than areas like the Santa Ana Mountains. But nobody ever does. Within at least the last 20 years, a mountain lion has not been documented west of the 5 freeway or north of the 91 freeway in Orange County. Basically, if you are on the coastal side of the 5 freeway or north of the 91 freeway, you can rest assured that you won't encounter a mountain lion. Now, of course a mountain lion can go wherever it please, it can certainly roam through city and get to here or there, but until that happens, there is no reason to believe otherwise. Of course, anytime you venture into any wilderness, you should always be aware of your surroundings and know how to act accordingly with wildlife. Keep in mind, the most dangerous thing out there are humans.
What are the affects of claiming to see mountain lions? Well, there's nothing positive about falsely reporting an animal but the negatives would be that you are making people scared to go into the wilderness since some people might believe you. The other negatives are making it seem normal to see a mountain lion since so many claims get reported. Some people do actually see mountain lions in Orange County and it really is a big deal, to see one in the wild is very rare. When there are many people falsely reporting their sightings, it takes away from how special these moments are. You want to feel special about seeing one at the expense of making it less special for those who do. It is very common for people outside of known mountain lion habitat to claim to see a lion but coincidentally not have taken a photo for whatever reason (oh it ran away to fast, oh I was too scared, oh my camera wasn't working, I watched it for a long time to confirm what I saw but didn't take a photo). If this article is ever proven wrong, it will be updated, until then it stands to be 100% accurate.
Here are some simple comparisons:
Mountain lions: Large, 60-140 lbs, bigger than most large domestic dogs
Bobcats: Small, 10-30 lbs, smaller than a cattle dog
Mountain lions: Long tail which reaches the ground
Bobcats: Stubby tail that can vary in length but doesn't reach the ground
Mountain lions: Tan color which black tip on tail. Spotted when born
Bobcat: spotted with some stripes on legs