Environment & Science

Meet the mountain lions of LA

Mountain lion P-22 eating a mule deer.
Mountain lion P-22 eating a mule deer.
National Park Service via Flickr

The cougars of Los Angeles finally have online profiles (with photos!) to match their real world lives. But we're not talking about those kind of cougars or those kind of profiles.

Earlier this week, the National Park Service launched its Puma Profiles, life stories of the 53 big cats they've tagged in and around the Santa Monica Mountains during the past 14 years.

Biologist Jeff Sikich, who has overseen the long-running mountain lion study since it launched in 2002, spends a good chunk of his time in the field, trying to track down these cats.

Once they're collared, he can follow their movements, hiking in to their kills to see what they're eating. The goal is to understand how mountain lions survive in such a fragmented urban landscape.

"Where are they going? What's their diet? Are they reproducing and successfully raising young? Are they crossing roads? Are they crossing freeways? What are they dying from?," Sikich asks.

Take, for example, P-12, a young male who was collared in the Simi Hills in 2008. According to Sikich, he's the only lion in the past 14 years to cross the 101 freeway from north to south.

Mountain lion P-12 has fathered eight documented litters of kittens, as of October 2015.
Mountain lion P-12 has fathered eight documented litters of kittens, as of October 2015.
Courtesy of the National Park Service

"His crossing was very cool because he actually brought new genetic material not seen in the Santa Monica Mountains. He bred with a female, had a litter of kittens and passed on some of this unique genetic material to his offspring, so his presence, actually altered the genetic structure of our population," Sikich says.

But the problem of inbreeding remains when you have an "island of habitat," in this case a roughly 275-square-mile area bounded by the 101 freeway to the north, the 405 freeway to the east, the Oxnard agricultural fields to the west and the ocean to the south. It can sustain 10 to 15 lions tops — two to four adult males, four to six adult females and some kittens and sub-adults.

Sikich is blunt: "In the future, that cannot genetically sustain a population." 

After P-12's semi-miraculous crossing and successful mating, he has had no other options but to breed with his daughters and granddaughters.

"We're really interested in how all these regions are connected," Sikich says. "We have these huge barriers in between a lot of these mountain ranges — freeways and developments." 

Sikich says he's currently following 15 individuals not only in the Santa Monica Mountains but also in the Verdugo Mountains, the Santa Susana Mountains, one in the Los Padres Mountains and one in Griffith Park — the celebrated P-22. 

Watching P-22, Southern California's most famous cougar, researchers have learned about the insidious effects of poisons as they work their way up the food chain.

P-22 was most likely born in the Santa Monica Mountains and crossed two major freeways to reach his current home, Griffith Park. A couple of years ago, when he was recaptured, he looked like he'd been through the wringer.

Mountain lion P-22 was trapped, sedated and treated for mange during a capture in Griffith Park.
Mountain lion P-22 was trapped, sedated and treated for mange during a capture in Griffith Park.
National Park Service via Flickr

He was suffering from mange and tests showed he had rodenticide in his blood. In fact, 13 of the 14 mountain lions in the study have tested positive for one or more anticoagulant compound and three have died from anticoagulant intoxication.

"We believe the likely mechanism of exposure is from the mountain lion killing and eating the coyote that killed and ate the ground squirrel that ate the poison that the golf course or apartment complex or homeowner put out," Sikich says.

Research conducted from 1996 to 2003 points to rat poison as the second leading cause of death for coyotes, after roadkill.

When P-22 was recaptured this last December, he appeared healthy and seemed to have recovered, much to the delight of Angelenos. But nothing has changed in his environment and the problems faced by Southern California cougars — a tiny genetic pool, encroaching human developments, poisons — remain.

Sikich hopes that the Puma Profiles will raise awareness and interest about the big cats, enough that a wildlife bridge over the 101 freeway connecting the Santa Monica Mountains to the mountains in the north moves from long-held dream to reality. Until then, these big cats at least have a moment of online glory.