Are Mountain Lions in the Smoky Mountains? It Depends on Who You Ask

a bobcat has a much shorter tail than a mountain lion and is much smaller

In the Smokies, a bobcat is often mistaken for a mountain lion. However, they have defining physical characteristics (photos by Geoff Kuchera and Carol, stock.adobe.com)

How to tell the difference between a mountain lion and a bobcat

It’s been more than 100 years since mountain lions have lived in the Smokies. However, if you spend enough time around mountain folk, you’ll hear of someone who knows someone who knows someone who saw a panther – or its prints – in the national park.

Sure, the mountains are big and stretch deep into Georgia, which isn’t that far from Florida, where panthers continue to exist. And it’s a fact that a Florida panther, which is usually based in South Florida, has strayed up into Georgia. There have also been confirmed sightings of Western male mountain lions making the long trek East, and there have been a handful of confirmed sightings in West Tennessee in recent years. So, I try to keep an open mind. I’ve heard lots of people argue that they have seen mountain lions in the area. But ultimately, despite the various reports, there’s currently no evidence of a breeding population of mountain lions, cougars or panthers in the mountains of East Tennessee.

bobcat kitten
A bobcat kitten almost looks similar to a traditional house cat (photo by Megan Lorenz/stock.adobe.com)

What large cats live in the Smoky Mountains?

While you won’t find mountain lions, cougars or panthers in the Smokies, you could come across a bobcat. I think this is why people think there are larger cats in the Smokies. For example, look at what happened in September of 2020. A policeman reported a tiger loose in Knox County. Questions were asked about any place a tiger might have escaped from – of which there is a surprising number. Eventually, all regional tigers were accounted for. The search turned up nothing. The policeman’s claim was placed under a little more scrutiny. About a week later, officials indicated they believed what the policeman had seen early that morning was not a tiger. It was a bobcat. 

In my opinion, if a policeman can mistake a bobcat for a tiger, then it is not a leap to assume the majority of people who spot cougars, panthers and mountain lions are not seeing those animals. They’re seeing bobcats. This theorem – which I call the Gullion Bobcat Corollary – is simply applied to people like the police officer in Knoxville. Those folks who were going about their normal day and were confronted with a scary ball of claws and teeth and pain known as a bobcat. Adrenaline kicks in and the bobcat starts to look much bigger than it is. 

mountain lion on a rock
Mountain lions are significantly larger than bobcats. Currently, there’s no evidence of a breeding mountain lion population in the Smoky Mountains (photo by moosehenderson/stock.adobe.com)

How can you tell a bobcat from a mountain lion?

To tell the difference, bobcats are significantly smaller wild cats than cougars or panthers or mountain lions. A bobcat weighs 13 to 40 pounds, on average. A cougar can weigh 70 to 180 pounds. Also, your average bobcat is 2 to 4 feet long with a gray to brown coat and a short “bobbed” tail. They live all over the United States and Canada and are – from a safe distance – cute as pie. Please, however, do not try to pet a bobcat. Theoretically, a bobcat encounter could be fatal, but the more likely result of a bobcat is some nasty scratches, a few deep cuts and a lot of pain. 

A mountain lion and a bobcat often share a similar habitat, usually living in semi-deserts or swamps or forests. They are also both solitary animals. However, they vary quite a bit in physical characteristics. A mountain lion is something to be feared. Weighing in at three to four or even five times larger than a bobcat, the mountain lion is up to 6 feet long, has an orange-brown to yellow-brown coat, a slender body, a rounded head and a long, cylindrical tail with a dark tip. Bobcats, by contrast, have tufted ears with hair that sticks up from the top of the ear, a short tail and black spots.

a gray bobcat has a short tail
One of the most defining characteristics of a bobcat is its short tail (photo by Gary/stock.adobe.com)

Are bobcats dangerous to humans?

I couldn’t find evidence of a fatal bobcat incident with a human, though I figure it has to have happened at some point. Bobcat encounters are rare and often these animals completely avoid human contact unless they are rabid. Bobcats are predators and carnivores whose prey includes squirrels, raccoons, chickens, rabbits, birds, mice and other rodents or smaller creatures. Mountain lions, by contrast, primarily eat bigger game such as deer. Mountain lion or cougar fatalities are also rare but have happened. According to the Wikipedia page devoted to fatal cougar attacks, “A total of 126 [incidents], 27 of which are fatal, have been documented in North America in the past 100 years.” But fatal incidents occur much less frequently than snake bites, lightning strikes or bee stings.

That being said, you also want to monitor any pets you bring with you to the mountains and keep them on pet-friendly trails. Have you seen any big cats or large cats in the Smoky Mountains? Let me know in the comments! View the web story version of this article here.

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at info@thesmokies.com.

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25 thoughts on “Are Mountain Lions in the Smoky Mountains? It Depends on Who You Ask”

  1. While I haven’t seen any, I have been conducting my own research and have set up various trail cameras in areas they have supposedly been spotted. Hopefully I see results! If not, seeing the other wildlife is a bonus anyways 🙂

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  2. I have seen a big cat off Rocky Flats Road just north of 321. It was definitely a mountain lion, long tail and large size told me it wasn’t a bobcat.

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  3. They are definitely here. Those that have lived here all their lives can tell the difference between a bobcat and a mountain lion. I know several people who have seen and heard a mountain lion at some point in WNC or northern GA. Not only have I heard them but I have seen a black one. Something biologists say doesn’t even exist. But I saw it with my own eyes. So for me, I know they are here.

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  4. I saw a bobcat cross Forge Creek Road a bit over a year ago while I was walking. It came up from the creek, crossed the road and went up the little ridge on the other side. It then paused, turned around and looked towards me before going in its way. Awesome experience!

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  5. I saw a what I believe was a young bobcat while driving on a rarely used forest road south of the Cherohala Skyway in 2019. It seemed to be sticking its head up over a bank to see what the noise was. You couldn’t miss the facial markings and the stripes as it quickly turned away. I’m not sure where I was but I ended up in NC near Robbinsville.

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  6. I stayed at an AirB&B in Rock Island, Tennessee right after Thanksgiving last month and saw a mountain lion run right in front of me in the pasture next to the house. I live in Michigan and we have bobcats, so I know the difference. It was large and had a very long tail and he was running very fast. I called the owner of the house and he said you’re the 3rd person to tell me that. I then called the Crossville,Tennessee wildlife conservation center and the officer thought I was crazy. I recently purchased land in Quebeck, Tennessee, so now I know I have to be on my awares. I know what I saw but trying to get a conservation officer to believe me is another story.

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  7. I saw 2. Orobably a momither and off spring. Stand outside i heard the birds going absolutely nuts. 10 seconds later they Sprinted by me (40 feet) and up the mountain. Cherokee cty NC

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  8. I had a bobcat lay in the open on a mower ramp to our shed in Maryville, TN. It wasn’t scared of us at all but even my Shepherd height mix dog refused to go out for 8 hours until it left. It was huge and took up an entire 3 foot by 5 foot space while laying down. I can’t imagine why if Yorkshire Terriers can range from 1 pound to 10 pounds and be a full blooded breed why we couldn’t have Bob Cats a lot bigger than this article states. I mean an 8 hour view is not just adrenaline.

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  9. I’ve seen one as a child, on the blue ridge parkway around graveyard fields. I Was hiking with family, and the big cat crossed the trail. I told the story and it was put in the local paper.

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  10. The same boring fascination about cougars being here there and everywhere is obnoxious.Who cares?Man wiped them out once because they could.Last month in ldaho a MTN.lion was strangled by a snare.Nice!Leave them alone!!!See a trap? Wreck it!!!

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  11. Oh yes they are here in E TN. I live 2000′ up in the Wears Valley area. I see bobcats regularly and know that one day I saw a mountain lion. About 125 pounds and a very long tail. My dog scared it off and of course I wasn’t carrying my phone.

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  12. They are in the WMA’S of North Georgia. Seen one on a hunting trip leaped across forestry rd.42 in Blueridge WMA. Buckskin color with a long tail is no Bobcat! The DNR says not aware of any population’s? 🤔

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  13. I think smokey mts would have mt.lions.trail cams have recorded them here in upper east.tn. and i personally saw the black one before and my son saw the brow one dragging away a road kill dear.they are here.no mistake

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  14. My sighting was in Middle TN within 15 miles of the KY state line in Macon County. It was 2006 when a young adult Mountain Lion dashed across Highway 52 at a traffic light within the city limits of Lafayette. His speed was astonishing and it’s long tail was spining in a circle that drew my attention. It looked like a tornado as he ran. He was long, lean and youthful looking. I was told by a Veterinarian that a horse was attacked within a mile of my sighting. The horse subsequently died from the damage while in the care of the Veterinarian.

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  15. There are both in wnc I’ve seen them I’ve got a skull from a female mtn lion killed on hwy 25 in Hendersonville

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  16. Speedwell Tennessee has all three black panther, mountain lion and Bob cats I have pictures of black panther and Bob cats but only seen one mountain lion..it has been a few years since last encounter.

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  17. Exploring crevices around bluff on Falling Water Mtn. Right beside Chattanooga. Saw the Lion rise from behind a rock only 6ft in front of me. It’s shoulders came up to my hips. I didn’t have time to exaggerate a bobcat. Horrible hiss into a hellish growl. I accidentally cornered the thing by walking in. Never ran so fast in my life. The truly terrifying thing though? It managed to pass me unseen and mark trees 200 yards down.

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  18. See a large Bobcat last night (Jan. 25th, 2022) at about 8:00-8:30pm, it was walking by my home on Hidden Hills Road in Gatlinburg. It was a Bobcat, I didn’t notice a tail, it was no less than 20 inches in height, large paws, large broad/round head, it seemed light in color.

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  19. We definitely do have mountain lions in the smokey mountains, in have seen more than one with my own eyes. It’s true there are also bobcats but it know the difference. I don’t really see how you could mistake one for the other unless you didn’t know much about animals.

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  20. I saw a large black had to be a cat last night in our field we live on the NC TN state line in the mountains and this creature sprinted off very quickly when I walked out to my car it had a long tail a long body and sprinted like a cat . It was definitely all black also. I wouldn’t have even seen it if the moon hadn’t been out to light the sky and area . Very scary .

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  21. 12–16-23. If anyone wants to see or talk to someone about panthers in east tn come to northeast Greene county Romeo area an you can talk to people who have seen them an have pics on trail cams

    Reply

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