Wildlife biologists recently captured the mountain lion that roams Griffith Park to check on his health. On Thursday, they reported the puma known as P-22 had contracted the skin disease mange and showed traces of toxins linked to rat poison in his blood.
"You can see on his face that he’s sort of scraggly, and his whiskers are sort of scraggly, and his tail is pretty scrawny," said Seth Riley, a researcher with the National Park Service. "If you look at the pictures in the National Geographic from December, with the Hollywood Sign there, he looks like this sort of amazing animal in great shape, and he doesn't look like that anymore."
Recent pictures taken from wildlife trail cameras had led scientists to suspect that the puma had contracted mange-carrying mites. The capture allowed them to confirm their presence.
Mange has been devastating to local bobcats. Over a two-year period, it reduced their rate of survival from 75 percent to below 30. Its effects on mountain lions aren’t well known, as only a few have ever been documented to have the disease.
The researchers treated P-22 with selamectin, a topical parasiticide commonly used to kill mites, fleas and ticks in pet dogs and cats.
"We gave him a lion-sized dose," Riley said. "We gave him six tubes of it, actually."
Anticoagulants also present
The scientists also gave the cougar an injection of Vitamin K as a treatment for compounds found in rat poison that he may have indirectly ingested. Blood samples were shown to contain two such compounds.
The compounds which kill rodents by preventing their blood from clotting have been found to travel up the food chain and collect in top predators. Last month, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation moved to limit sales of some anticoagulant rodenticides to licensed users. The compounds found in P-22's blood sample are not among the ones that will be banned from consumer sale.
Riley said there is research linking the anticoagulants in rodenticides to greater susceptibility to mange.
"In general, we don't have a lot of information on lions and mange, but in bobcats, at least, we've seen statistically, a very strong correlation between exposure to rodenticides and mange," Riley said. "Virtually, every mountain lion that we've tested — 11 of the 12, including him — had all been exposed to rodenticides."
Riley said that the presence of anticoagulants in P-22's blood sample indicates how much of it is in the mountain lion's environment, as toxic compounds don't last long in the blood. Liver samples give a better indication of exposures, but those are only collected after a cougar has died.
P-22 captured attention after taking up residence in Griffith Park. Scientists were able to determine that he was born from a population in the Santa Monica Mountains. His route into Griffith Park required him to cross two busy freeways.
That journey and occasional sightings have helped make him an almost pop icon in Los Angeles. A Twitter user set up an account for the cougar. In December, National Geographic published an trail-camera photograph of P-22 with the Hollywood sign in the background.
Despite the presence of mange and toxic chemicals in P-22, Riley said the animal still exhibits healthy behavior.
On Tuesday, Riley was tracking the mountain lion's recent movements via GPS-collar data. A series of stops displayed on his computer screen showed that P-22 had traveled throughout most of the hilly portions of Griffith Park since the capture. Riley said that the cougar's movements and feeding habits showed signs of continued health.
"He was in reasonably good shape weight-wise. He was 10 pounds less than the last time we caught him but not super-skinny, and in fact, he had a pretty full belly from a deer he had killed recently," Riley said.
The scientists were able to replace the tracking collar on P-22, which will allow them to monitor his movements for another couple years.
"He's a male in a tiny area for a male mountain lion, and in an area that very likely has no females," Riley said. "We still assume that eventually he'll probably try to get somewhere else and find females, but it's pretty tough there. It's pretty surrounded by freeways and development and stuff, so we'll see what happens."