Mountain Lions Vs. Bobcats: Do You Know the Difference?

Mountain lions aren't as prevalent as you might suspect in Marin. Patch has highlighted the differences between a lion and a bobcat, which is much more common to see in Marin.

Editor's note: This is the first part of a series about mountain lions in Marin.


While there have been multiple possible mountain lion sightings recently in San Anselmo and Fairfax, the likelihood that any of those reported sightings were of an actual lion is very, very slim, according to local wildlife officials.

Zara McDonald, executive director of the Sausalito-based Felidae Conservation Fund, said that 85 to 90 percent of all lion sightings in California are not mountain lions. And even if the recent Marin sightings really were mountain lions, it would be a first for Marin if a wild feline attacked a human. 

“I’ve been a county ranger for 30 years now and I’ve never seen a mountain lion in Marin,” said Rob Ruiz, Marin County Parks chief park ranger.

Ruiz said he has “certainly seen” mountain lion tracks and spotted the cougars on wildlife cameras, but they are nowhere close to as prevalent as bobcats.

“I see bobcats probably once a week in my travels [around Marin]. Bobcats are far more tolerant of people than they are of mountain lions, especially in West Marin,” Ruiz said.

McDonald told Patch there are “very, very few lions in Marin (maybe 2-3) and they are not interested in people.” The Felidae Conservation Fund founded the Bay Area Puma Project and has several remote cameras in Marin to produce population samplings of lions and bobcats. They will begin a North Bay telemetry project in 2014.

The lions have large home ranges, McDonald said, and prefer West Marin and the northwest side of Mount Tamalpais.

There have been no verified mountain lion attacks in Marin since they started being recorded in 1890, according to the California Department of Fish and Game. California has only had 16 verified mountain lion attacks since 1890 and the Bay Area hasn’t had any verified attacks since 1909.



 While bobcats may be frequently mistaken for their larger relative, they aren’t the only animal that can confuse those with a mountain lion phobia.

“We’ve had people mistake Labrador Retrievers for mountain lions,” Ruiz said, who added that it can be hard to identify an animal if you see it running into a bush quickly.

Patch decided to outline the differences between mountain lions and bobcats, which are both bigger than house cats (you can also check out the above pictures to get an understanding of what lions and bobcats look like:


  • Bobcats are about 30 inches long and weigh between 15 to 35 pounds, Ruiz said.
  • Mountain lions are usually 52 to 54 inches long and weigh between 100 and 175 pounds, he said.


  • Bobcats have a short bobtail that’s about five inches long.
  • Mountain lions have a long and cylindrical tail with a dark tip. The tail is usually 30 to 36 inches long.


  • Bobcats have tufted ears, where hair sticks up from the top of the ear.


  • Bobcats are an orangish color and have black spots.
  • Mountain lions are uniform in color and have a tawny coloration (a tan Orangish-Brownish Color).


  • Mountain lions mainly eat deer. (They can feast on one deer carcass for a week, hiding it in bushes and staying in the area. If you ever encounter a deer carcass in bushes with leaves and twigs on top of it, don’t stick around, Ruiz said.)
  • Bobcats feast on smaller creatures, such as rabbits, rodents and chickens.


In the extremely unlikely event that someone actually sees a mountain lion, they shouldn’t call the police, McDonald said. Instead, try to take a photo so the sighting can be confirmed and call:

  • The Felidae Conservation Fund at (415) 229-9335 or e-mail info@bapp.org
  • The Department of Fish and Game office for the Bay Delta region (707) 944-5500.

Next Monday, we’ll have more information about what you should do if you encounter a mountain lion or bobcat in the wild and what precautionary measures you can do at home and outside. 

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Popo October 01, 2012 at 06:30 PM
Nice article. I like the pics of a mountain lion and bobcat walking by the same small bush as a size comparison. I look forward to the next article. Why don't residents post pics of their backyard wildlife? Check out the cute coyote pups in Mill Valley: http://millvalley.patch.com/articles/coyotes-frolic-in-the-backyard#photo-7770672
Jessica Mullins (Editor) October 01, 2012 at 07:36 PM
I just updated the above article to say the next part of this series will run next Monday (instead of later this week).
Rebekah Collins October 01, 2012 at 08:14 PM
Thank You Jessica ! This is a great reference for people - great to see people getting education and directed away from calling the police . . .
Jory Prum October 02, 2012 at 08:19 PM
I've seen many bobcats since moving to Marin nearly 14 years ago. Only last Tuesday did I finally spy a mountain lion. It was slinking off the road, walking down to Bolinas Lagoon. I only saw it as it disappeared into the bushes, but it was obviously a mountain lion because it had the distinctive tail. Pretty awesome!
Jessica Mullins (Editor) October 18, 2012 at 09:03 PM
Here's the second part of this two-part series on mountain lions --- Mountain Lion Encounters: What To Do and How to Avoid Them: http://patch.com/A-ytN0
teri forsher July 16, 2013 at 05:23 PM
Great article. About a year ago my neighbor saw a mountain lion, racing across the street, in the hills above Gerstle Park. She definitely knows the difference. This one had a long tail, and weighed about 60lbs. Scary.
Jyll Cassidy July 24, 2013 at 07:00 PM
i saw a mountain lion way up behind San Dominico School a couple of years ago...i did think it was a dog until i saw that distinctive loooong dark tail swish before it leaped up an embankment!


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