Logo horizontal ruler

Mountain Lion Kittens Doing Well but Face Uncertain Future

By Jim Stebinger
Special to the Lookout

December 10 -- Researchers are happy that four young mountain lion kittens recently born in the Santa Monica Mountains have weathered most of the early dangers and are growing bigger and more active.

They also hope the kittens –- which, along with the parents, have tracking devices –- will provide valuable clues about how wild animals manage to coexist with humans near populated urban areas.

"So far they seem to be doing fine," Ray Sauvajot, chief of science, planning and resource management for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

"If you saw them you might think they are very big housecats with very big feet," he said of the approximately 20 pound kittens. Their mother keeps close watch on them as they begin to venture and explore their home, he said.

The kittens, two of each sex, face an uncertain future. It would be unusual for all four to survive to adulthood and the risks of living near a city create long odds for the offspring of the only proven pair of local big cats.

Researchers studying them are near the half-way point of a three-year study of urban mountain lions. The parents are known as P-1 (puma 1) and P-2. P-1, the male, is about four-years-old and weighs 150 pounds. The two-year-old first-time mother is about 80 pounds.

"He is completely unaware and away,” Sauvajot said. “Ideally they (the mother and kittens) won't encounter him."

The parents are both collared as part of the study. Sauvajot thinks there may be a few other mountain lions (known to scientists as pumas) in the region, but not many.

"There may be two or three," he said "but not five or ten." The couple is the only known mating pair, he said.

The cats live in the "central Santa Monica Mountains" and mating is thought to have taken place in May, researchers said. The cubs arrived in late August.

As soon as the mother left the den, researchers entered it and inserted tracking devices into the kittens' abdomens, Sauvajot said. He added that the researchers monitor the cats frequently by coming to within a few miles of the cat's location and tracking the signals.

They are "monitoring in place" and no longer get close enough to the cats to risk being seen, Sauvajot said.

"We are able to pick up signals from all four," he said. "If something goes wrong, we will know about it."

The adults are healthy and primarily eat mule deer. "We don't have a good idea of the number of deer out there, but we suspect that since the cats are doing well, the deer are, too," Sauvajot said. The cats eat smaller prey as well, including coyotes but primarily hunt the deer, he said.

The cougars (as mountain lions are known in the Pacific Northwest) and the mule deer are the biggest animals in the region, according to Sauvajot. Black bears sometimes wander into the area, but are not regulars. Coyotes are numerous, as are bobcats.

Bobcats weigh between 20 and 30 pounds and prey primarily on rabbits. Sauvajot thinks there may be 400 of the feisty little cats in the region. He said that density would match that of any he is aware of. The bobcats eat the numerous local rabbits. Raccoons are also in the area, as are badgers.

According to a recent Time Magazine article, studies such as the one involving local cats may help reduce the conflict between humans and cats. These urban habitat studies unlock secrets of large animals in an urbanized region. Such studies may also have implications for the future of all wild cats and their prey as they face increasing threat from human growth.

Time noted that, like pumas, tigers, lions, leopards, snow leopards and cheetahs are being forced into smaller and smaller parts of their former range. Until recently most hope was placed in parks and reserves. But it is now seen that animals in reserves form isolated population pockets which have less genetic diversity and are at risk of dying out, according to the article.

Researchers such as the local team are looking at many wild cats and trying to find ways to allow them to roam through areas populated by people so that the animals maintain healthy populations. With its urban density, freeways and major roads, this region is a test case for ways in which animals can continue to coexist with humans, researchers said.

"We are trying to study the animals to find out where the travel corridors are," Sauvajot said. "We want to answer the question 'How do you get the animals across major roads?' The survival of a population is going to depend on connecting to areas beyond these mountains. The kittens themselves will provide the answers."

P-1 walking past camera. Picture was taken by a remote camera with a trip wire in June 2002 at the befginning of the study.

Although the cats are near trails and other human habitations he says they "are keeping to themselves," and so far have largely avoided human contact. The male did eat goats belonging to a Malibu man and was almost condemned for it. The goat's owner gave the cat a reprieve. Currently there is no reparation plan in effect for owners who lose animals to the cats.

Wildlife photographer Tom Brakefield, author of "Big Cats: Kingdom of Might" notes that the mountain lion, as the it is generally known in California, probably has more local names and nicknames than any other cat.

Cougar, catamount (contracted from cat of the mountain), painter, deer tiger, American lion, king cat and mountain screamer are among the colorful names given to these animals. An Argentinean name, he says, translates to "friend of man." The scientific name is Felis Concolor (cat of one color) and most researchers call them pumas.

Brakefield estimates there may be 30,000 pumas ranging between northern Canada and Mexico, with about 5,000 in California. The north-south extent of their range is the greatest for any cat. No one is certain how many live south of Mexico to the extreme of Puma range in Argentina. Sauvajot is wary of estimates which are often very inaccurate. Cats are wary and secretive and can live quite close to humans undetected.

Exactly where pumas fit in the cat family is a matter of debate. "I think of them more as a giant version of the house cat -- although that isn't exactly correct, either," Sauvajot said.

Brakefield notes that, like housecats, pumas purr but cannot roar, and have small heads in proportion to their body with a shortened face. They approach their food as housecats do, another of a number of reasons why they are generally counted among the genus felis, with the housecat. That is also why the young are called kittens and not cubs.

First capture of the male P-1, July 2002 shown by National Park Service wildlife technician Piper Roby and, wildlife biologist Eric York.

But popular imagination and many books lump them in with the great or roaring cats. Their size, and their superficial appearance to lions tempt many to include them among the great cats ( genus Panthera) as they are generally bigger than leopards and smaller than jaguars.

Brakefield says the largest puma on record weighed more than 300 pounds. The cats can reach 8.5 feet in length, with a 28" tail. That, incidentally, is about their height at the shoulder. The biggest puma is not much smaller than a large jaguar and much bigger than an average leopard. But members of the great cats generally roar. They also have skeletal differences that separate them from pumas.

Brakefield notes that a recent school of thought argues that pumas are genetically closest to the cheetah. Both cats have small heads and long legs. If so, they will eventually join the cheetahs which are distinct enough from all other cats to have their own genus.

Cheetah-like big cats roamed North America 3 million years ago, according to Alan Turner, author of The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives. These cats, and one believed to be a puma ancestor, are thought to have hunted much more like cheetahs than current pumas do. Pumas as they are today have been unchanged for about 300,000 years, Turner said.

According to Desmond Morris, author of "Cat World: A Feline Encyclopedia," cat-like animals have been on earth for about 35 million years and several hundred species have come and gone in that time. Modern cats, he said, seem to have appeared beginning 20 million years ago.

Extremely successful predators, there are now about 37 species in existence. They range from the Sand Cat and the Black-Footed Cat of Africa, neither of which weighs more than 5 pounds, all the way up to the largest of tigers which can weigh over 600 pounds.

Cats prey on everything from insects to the young of the biggest land mammals, not to mention fish, birds, reptiles and snakes. Most of the wild cats are either threatened or may become threatened due to habitat destruction and other human interventions.
Lookout Logo footer image
Copyright 1999-2008 surfsantamonica.com. All Rights Reserved.
Footer Email icon