Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area claims the title of "largest urban national park in the country," but it's 150,000+ acres of mountains and coastline in Ventura and Los Angeles counties also include some distinctly non-urban wildlife. Biologists recently discovered two mountain lion kittens in the park.
The kittens' mother, designed by researchers as P-19, was captured a few months ago and appeared to be pregnant. Biologists subsequently documented denning behavior and sent a team to search for the kittens while the mother was away from the area. Their efforts were rewarded with the find of the two cubs, one male and one female. They were both outfitted with tracking devices to aid in future monitoring.
Although scientists welcomed the news of the two kittens, the long-term picture for mountain lions in the area is uncertain.
"The fact that successful reproduction is occurring in the mountains indicates that we have high-quality habitat for mountain lions here," said Dr. Seth Riley, a wildlife expert with the National Park Service. "Unfortunately, the amount of habitat is not sufficient to support a viable population long-term, and when new animals like these are born, especially young males, they run into freeways and development when they try to disperse."
Named Puma 23 and 24, or P-23 and P-24 for short, the kittens were born in mid-June. Although the birth of kittens is a hopeful sign for a region with a relatively small mountain lion population, there were caution flags as well: the kittens are the second documented case of first-order inbreeding in which a father lion mates with his female offspring.
DNA testing from the Robert Wayne Lab at UCLA indicates that the father of the kittens is P-12, who is also the father of P-19, the mother of the two new cubs. P-12 is the only radio-collared mountain lion documented to successfully cross the 101 Freeway, thereby contributing new genetic material to the isolated lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Biologists from Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area are now tracking seven mountain lions as part of a decade-long study to better understand how the animals survive in such an urbanized landscape. With the addition of the two kittens, the agency has studied a total of 24 mountain lions. This is the third litter of kittens documented during the study.
Scientists note that although the habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains is robust and suitable for hunting and reproduction, the kittens will face many challenges to survive. The limited amount of connectivity between remaining natural areas and the lack of effective wildlife crossings can lead to deadly conflicts over territory and road mortalities.
Interested in more information about mountain lions at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area? You'll find it on the park website.