This spring has been the season of Mountain Lion sightings in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. I have received an unusual number of sighting reports over the last several months. Reports have come in at a rate of one or two per week for over ten weeks now. That amounts to right around 16 unique sightings, each coming from different locations all around the metroplex.

Mountain Lions in the Metroplex?
Mountain Lions in the Metroplex?

I’m not sure what accounts for this recent rash of sightings, but one thing is certain—it is not attributable the sudden appearance of big cats in our midst. A Mountain Lion in North Texas—though not entirely out of the question—would be an extremely rare occurrence.

I’ve followed up on most all of the reports I have received this spring. I’ve reviewed photographs and conducted onsite investigations looking for good solid evidence. Some have been easier to resolve than others. In most of these cases the animal in question was shown to be a Bobcat. At least one or two cases may yet prove to be only a feral house cat.

So what do you think, Mountain Lion or Bobcat?
So what do you think, Mountain Lion or Bobcat?

In the picture above, the key feature needed to identify this cat as a Mountain Lion—a long tail—is obscured behind bushes. Fortunately though, the cat did us the favor of standing behind a fence that makes it easy to judge his actual size. Once you determine the pickets are spaced roughly 5 to 6 inches apart, then it becomes a simple matter to deduce that this cat is actually a 3 foot long Bobcat, and not a 6 foot long Mountain Lion. Case closed!

Bobcat!
Bobcat!

So, how does this happen? How do reasonable, rational people mistake a 16 pound house cat or a 25 pound Bobcat for a 150 pound Mountain Lion? Well, evidently its easier than you first might expect.

Excitement, poor viewing conditions, and other factors can play a role in these misidentifications. Animals that project an element of danger are often perceived as being larger than they actually are. Snakes are almost always described to me as being “huge.” The same is true of spiders, Coyotes, and yes, even Bobcats.

One of the most important things to recognize is that, unfortunately, people are notoriously poor eyewitnesses. Our prejudices and expectations worm their way into our memories and distort our recollections. Often only general impressions are recorded, not vivid details, and our brains try to backfill the gaps. This psychological phenomenon is well documented. For better or worse, that’s just the way we are. Our memories are flawed and suspect.

Mountain Lion or Bobcat?
Mountain Lion or Bobcat?

The cat in the picture above certainly looks like a Mountain Lion—especially at first glance. The pose and posture seem generally correct. The distinctive cheek ruffs of the Bobcat appear to be missing. But once again the key distinguishing feature—the long tail is hidden off frame. Scale is also difficult to judge in this picture.

An onsite visit was require to settle this case. Once on location it was easy to see that the animal in the photograph was not a Mountain Lion. The tree was much smaller than it appears in the photograph, and the grass was only a little over a foot tall—not the four foot tall grass that would be required if this was actually a Mountain Lion.

Motion blur caused by the trail camera’s slow shutter speed explains any additional ambiguity. Blur obliterated the spots on the Bobcat’s coat and erased evidence of the cheek ruff. Conclusion? This is a picture of a Bobcat.

Bobcat!
Bobcat!

While people do not always make good eyewitnesses, one thing we are very skilled at is pattern recognition. We are so good at it in fact, that we can sometimes see familiar shapes—like faces or animals—in random patterns. This is the basis for the timeless game of trying to find pictures in the clouds. Its amazing the things you can see in the randomness of natural cloud formations. Below are some examples with a distinctly feline flair.

The Lion King?
The Lion King?
Kitty?
Kitty?
Panther in the sky?
Panther in the sky?

Our old friend the optical illusion is also likely at work in many of these Mountain Lion sightings. There are probably a couple of common illusions at work. Some optical illusions can cause the viewer to misjudge actual size or distance. Others can cause you to see things that are not actually there. Below are some examples of each.

Some optical illusions affect our ability to judge size and scale. Take a look at the following examples and see if you can answer the questions posed in the captions.

Which white circle is has the greater diameter?
Which white circle is has the greater diameter?
Which shape is larger?
Which shape is larger?
Which line is longer?
Which line is longer?

In each case the answer is, neither. The two white circles are the same exact size. The two shapes are the same size and the two lines are the same length. Sometimes appearances can be deceiving.

Another way our eyes can be fooled about size and scale is through the use—inadvertant or not—of forced perspective. Our expectations about how perspective works can affect the way we judge the size relationship between various objects. The illustration below shows this concept at work. Which man do you perceive as being the largest?

All three men are the exact same size.
All three men are the exact same size.

The next optical illusion is a good example of how our minds are wired for closure. Our brains will often complete shapes and lines that are really only suggested. There are no triangles in the illustration below, but most people will claim to see a number of them.

How many triangles in this picture?  Answer: Zero!
How many triangles in this picture? Answer: Zero!

Now, this is not meant to suggest that people are seeing animals that are not really there—only that wildlife sighting often take place in front of the randomness of natural vegetation and organic landforms. The mental filling-in-the-blanks in these cases probably accounts for the of perception of features—like long tails—that aren’t really there.

The picture below illustrates this phenomenon to a degree. If you look carefully at this picture, you can come away with the impression that this cat is sporting a long tail that curls up just before it reaches the ground near the cat’s back right foot. Can you see it? The highlights on the back leg combine with a dark object on the ground to give the distinct impression of a long tail. But, this cat is no Mountain Lion. I photographed this animal myself as he made his way across a large open field. This too was a Bobcat.

Long tail?
Long tail?

The final case study was one of the most difficult to unravel. To one degree or the other, all of the optical illusions mentioned above are at work. Take a look at the picture below and see what you think—is this a Mountain Lion?

Mountain Lion?
Mountain Lion?

At first glance it does appear that we finally have our big cat. The anatomy and posture are correct. A pronounced shoulder hump and a long tail carried low to the ground are signature characteristics of the animal we are searching for. The size also looks good. But this is no Mountain Lion.

The first clue that something might be wrong comes when you notice that the shoulder hump is actually an illusion created by a fortuitous juxtaposition of a tree branch. The next thing you might make note of is the half-buried brick just to the right of the tree near the center of the image. This brick helps us to begin to understand the scale of the scene we are looking at. This brick is roughly 3 inches wide. Knowing that helps us set the diameter of the tree trunk the brick is next to at 3 inches as well. The trees in this picture are smaller than they might first appear. They are saplings, not full grown pines.

Analyzing the image.
Analyzing the image.

When you first look at this picture, you might estimate the cat is a dozen or more yards away from the viewer. In truth, he is only a matter of a few feet away. A slight rise in the terrain creates a forced perspective that makes this cat seem larger and further away than he really is. This is no Mountain Lion. This is a typical house cat!

The depth of field is only a few feet deep.  Not yards deep as first might be suspected.
The depth of field is only a few feet deep. Not yards deep as first might be suspected.

So, even though we have not yet received a verifiable account of a Mountain Lion sighting in the DFW Metroplex, I have no doubt that eventually we will get the real deal. Unfortunately, an eyewitness report will not be sufficient to prove a Mountain Lion’s presence in the metroplex. Hard evidence will be needed. A picture or video recorded next to a recognizable landmark will be the best proof. A roadkill cat or good set of distinct track impressions would do the trick as well.

In the meanwhile, keep your eyes open and keep the reports coming!