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Eastern Cougar ‘Ghost Cat’ Declared Extinct

The eastern cougar is extinct. But did it ever exist in the first place?

A photo of an eastern cougar, date unknown. Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service

Another one officially bites the dust: the eastern cougar (Puma concolor couguar), a big cat resembling a mountain lion that lived throughout the northeast U.S. and Canada, has been declared extinct, Scientific American reports. The cat first started dwindling when white-tailed deer, its primary prey, were nearly eradicated in the late 1800s. By the time the last known eastern cougar was shot and killed in Maine in 1938, locals already thought of the species as “the ghost cat.”

To confirm the species non-existence, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently completed a thorough survey around the area. USFWS scientists looked for tracks, bodies, den sites and photographs, but ended their hunt empty handed. “We came to the conclusion that the eastern cougar is likely extinct, probably since the 1930s,” they told Scientific American. Though Northeasterners—especially people in Vermont—still report cougar sightings, the USFWS said, those typically turn out to be bobcats, lynx and even large house cats.

Cougars do occasionally turn up, but all 110 confirmed instances of cougar sightings in past years were linked to escaped animals brought to the Northeast from different parts of the country. Around 1,000 cougars are thought to be in captivity in the U.S. and Canada.

People still won’t let the eastern cougar go, however. Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources, for example, claims to have seen paw prints and feces, though the last confirmed cougar sighting in that part of Canada occurred when one was shot dead 1884.

On the other hand, some scientists say the eastern cougar never went extinct, because it never existed in the first place. The previously recognized North American cougar subspecies may have just been one species, they say. Regardless, the eastern cougar will no longer appear on the endangered species list because, whether non-existent from the beginning or now extinct, it does not exist now.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Cougars on the Move 
Florida Panthers Helped By Texas Cats 

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