The Mountain Lion’s Skull

Studying animal physiology can give us an immense appreciation for evolution and how ingeniously well some things work in the natural world. For example, the mountain lion’s skull has adapted almost perfectly to its hunting and feeding lifestyle — and it goes beyond simply having sharp teeth!

Mountain lions have 30 teeth in total, with 16 in the upper jaw and 14 in the lower; the long canine teeth are adapted for a killing bite that either severs a prey animal’s spinal chord or cuts off its windpipe. A shortened skull (compare a mountain lion’s profile to a wolf’s) and two big jaw-closing muscles (the temporalis and masseter) provide a powerful bite. A bony extension called the sagittal crest runs along the top of a mountain lion’s skull, providing more surface area for the temporalis, the larger of the two muscles, to attach and thus exert more force.

From Cougar: The American Lion, by Kevin Hansen. Figure from Melcher (1987) & Kitchener (1991).

While the temporalis is important for a wide-gaped killing bite, the masseter is more conducive to feeding. Cats don’t feed “face on” and instead turn their heads to the side when taking a bite, using their sharp carnassial teeth (modified molars and pre-molars) to shear off meat and flesh. The masseter attaches to the zygomatic arch, which is basically just a fancy way of saying cheekbone!

Mountain lions have less surface area within their nasal cavities due to their shortened skulls and thus don’t have as good of a sense of smell as animals with longer snouts like coyotes and black bears, but the species’ success in North America shows that cats don’t mind the trade-off one bit!

Aaron Huelsman

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