There's great news this morning for admirers of Los Angeles' most charismatic residents: a new pair of mountain lion cubs has been born in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
The kittens have been dubbed P-46 and P-47, as they're the 46th and 47th pumas recorded in the National Park Service's long-term study of the big cats in the Santa Monicas. Born in late November or early December in the west end of the mountain range, the two cats are the newest additions to one of the best-studied predator populations in the western United States.
"I'm often the bearer of bad news about the local mountain lion population," said the National Park Service's Kate Kuykendall, "so it's always refreshing to share the good news of new life and adorable kittens."
Want to learn more about these newest residents of the Santa Monica Mountains NRA? SoCal Connected has an in-depth look at the kittens' discovery.
Kuykendall, who serves as Acting Deputy Superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains NRA, has indeed had to convey unhappy news about the Santa Monica Mountains' pumas. Hemmed in on three sides by dangerous roadways with ocean to the south, the Santa Monicas serve as cramped quarters for local lions, and local residents' use of dangerous rodent poisons adds another level of danger for the range's big cats.
In fact, these new kittens inherit sad stories from their immediate family. Their mother, P-19, who was born in April 2010, has had two previous litters. The most recent of those litters, born in 2013, consisted of a boy and two girls: P-32, P-33, and P-34. P-34 was found dead in late September near Point Mugu, her body showing signs of exposure to anticoagulant rodent poisons. Her brother, P-32, had been killed two months earlier: after successful crossings of several San Fernando Valley freeways, he was hit by a car while attempting to cross Interstate 5 near Castaic Lake. The babies' older sister P-33, who also crossed the 101 successfully, is still apparently alive and well.
P-19's brother, P-18, was likewise killed trying to cross the 405 in Sepulveda Pass in 2011. Wildlife advocates have been working with CalTrans to study the feasibility of building a protected wildlife crossing for the pumas at the Liberty Canyon exit on the 101 near Agoura Hills. That spot, where undeveloped land flanks the freeway on both sides, is a natural migration corridor between the Santa Monica Mountains and mountains to the north. It's also the spot where a mountain lion was killed trying to enter the Santa Monicas in 2013.
The urge to leave the Santa Monicas must be pretty strong to prompt young pumas to try to cross busy freeways, and there's a reason for that: one of the biggest causes of mortality for pumas is other pumas. Especially among the highly territorial males, battles to the death are not infrequent. With just 200 square miles of habitat, the range has enough room for just two or three adult male mountain lions. And those slots are currently filled, meaning that cute little P-47, when he grows up, will have to get big or get out.
Researchers have been tracking mountain lions in the Santa Monicas since 2002, and these kittens' data now adds to the store of knowledge about the range's cats. Researchers tracking P-19 by way of her transmitter noticed that she stopped roaming quite so broadly for a time, indicating potential denning behavior. After about three weeks of relative inactivity, she started venturing farther again; Park Service biologists chose one of those day trips to try to locate the den, with obvious success.
The kittens were weighed and measured, equipped with implanted mini-transmitters, and sampled for genetic testing. Park Service scientists will analyze the kitties' genomes to unlock another mystery: just which of the male pumas in the area is the father. P-19's previous two litters were sired by her father, P-12, a fact that had wildlife biologists fretting over the level of inbreeding the Santa Monicas' cramped habitat seems to engender. But P-12 hasn't been seen or heard of since March, and camera traps photographed P-19 in the company of a different male puma some time before she started denning.
It's thought that that mysterious male mountain lion might have been P-45, a 150-pound lion of uncertain origin first discovered in the Santa Monicas in November.
If P-45 is the dad, that may be good news for the kittens' odds of survival: he may turn out to be unrelated to P-19, thus limiting the chances of inbreeding.
"We're very interested to learn more about who the father is," said Kuykendall, "and particularly curious to know if it's P-45."
All in all, great news for mountain lion admirers, even if the kittens do face significant peril as they grow and strike out on their own in the next several months. "There are so many challenges ahead for these kittens," said Kuykendall, "but it's hard not to feel hopeful when you look at these photos."
We're forced to agree.