A Mountain Lion Kitten Is Found, Leading To Excitement And Concern

Apr 9, 2017
Originally published on April 9, 2017 9:16 pm

Admit it. You only clicked on this story because of the photo of that insanely cute mountain lion kitten. You just wanted to gaze into her (yes, it's a her) milky blue eyes.

That's fair.

But there's more to the story of this kitten. Researchers have named her P-54. She's no more than a few months old. And – this is the sad part – it's likely that she's the product of inbreeding.

The kitten was born amidst the urban sprawl of Southern California in Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the largest urban national park in the country. The recreation area is bordered by the Pacific Ocean, agricultural fields and greater Los Angeles.

"Think of it like an island," says Jeff Sikich, a biologist for the National Park Service, who's been tracking the park's mountain lions in its steep chaparral-covered canyons for more than a decade. "[The mountain lions] are pretty much hemmed in by freeways and development on all sides."

As a result, few cats – or other wildlife, for that matter – are able to come and go, so adult mountain lions resort to inbreeding. Researchers know that the kitten's mother is P-23. And they suspect the father is P-23's half-brother, P-30. They're waiting for genetic testing to confirm their suspicions.

Sikich says it's unlikely that P-30 or other mountain lions know they're inbreeding. Male mountain lions don't stick around to raise their kids. But the results of inbreeding could be devastating to the population's future.

Limited genetic diversity can lead to mutations and abnormalities. Sikich points to the Florida panther, a population that almost went extinct from inbreeding. Researchers started to find genetic defects in the animals – holes in the heart, kinked tails and low sperm counts – before wildlife managers introduced outside panthers into the population to mix things up.

The same thing could start to happen in the Santa Monica Mountains. Sikich says they've only seen one outside mountain lion come into the park in the last 12 years. Others have been turned away by the freeways or killed by passing cars.

"If that was to stay the same into the future, we could get to that Florida panther level in roughly 35 years," he says. "And then once we hit those levels, we can see pretty much 99 percent extinction within roughly 15 years."

P-54 is a healthy kitten, Sikich says. And she'll have a better chance at long-term survival than she would if she was a boy. Most male mountain lions are killed by the park's dominant cats when they get old enough to leave their mother. Without a way to disperse outside of the mountains, they're put in competition with the older males.

And it's not all bad. Sikich and other researchers are encouraged and excited that the kitten was born.

"They are successfully reproducing and raising their young, which is a good thing," Sikich says.

That's impressive, he says, when you consider they're large carnivores living just outside the second-largest urban area in the U.S. And the lessons they're learning by studying the animals and how they survive in an urban and fragmented habitat could be used in other parts of the country. The National Wildlife Federation says that habitat loss, like that caused by fragmentation, is the biggest threat to wildlife in the U.S.

Park officials and wildlife advocates are hoping to address the fragmentation by building a wildlife overpass, which would connect the Santa Monica Mountains with other wilderness in Southern California. The proposed overpass would bridge over Route 101, a busy highway.

There are challenges to getting the project done, but Sikich is optimistic that the overpass will be built, giving future mountain lion kittens a better chance at long-term success.

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OK, now for some cute but worrying science from the animal world. The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area posted a photo earlier this week that is insanely adorable. It's of a newly found mountain lion kitten. Its eyes are still a milky blue. But the birth of the kitten amidst the urban sprawl of Southern California is exciting to wildlife lovers and biologists. But there's a sobering element to this story, as NPR's Nathan Rott found out.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Operation kitten chase.

With our guide...

JEFF SIKICH: I'm Jeff Sikich, biologist for the National Park Service.

ROTT: ...And resident expert, Sikich has been tracking mountain lions in these steep chaparral-covered canyons almost daily for more than a decade, hiking or driving, like we are today, along the maze of busy freeways and residential roads and homes that surround, bisect and crisscross this National Recreation Area.

SIKICH: Yeah, we're the largest urban national park.

ROTT: With the Pacific Coast on one side and the greater Los Angeles sprawl on the other, it's a big deal, Sikich says, that these large carnivores are able to successfully breed.

SIKICH: So I'm plugging her frequency in now.

ROTT: Sikich has already tagged the kitten we're looking for - P-54, as she is named - with a tiny VHF transmitter.

SIKICH: Yeah, so that's her. Right there you can hear that pulse rate going.

ROTT: Which means the kitten is somewhere in the scrub nearby. Now, I'm not going to bury the lead any more here for you. We're not going to actually see this kitten. She's down to the bottom of a steep overgrown canyon, best as we can tell, and Mom is there too, so not really a good idea to go marching in.

Knowing that I won't see the kitten, can you confirm for me, how cute is it?

SIKICH: They're...

ROTT: You don't audibly go awww.

SIKICH: I don't think I do. No, I don't. But it's definitely, you know, it's super cute cool.

ROTT: Oh, do you hear that? He almost said it. But really, this isn't entirely a feel-good story. More than likely, P-54, our cute little kitten, is the result of inbreeding because this place is like an island. Surrounded by all those people and roads, mountain lions have a nearly impossible time coming and going, which limits the available gene pool. That can lead to birth defects.

SIKICH: Holes in the heart besides, like, kinked tails and colics.

ROTT: Sikich says they've seen that with the Florida panther. And research shows that if nothing changes here, the Santa Monica mountain lions could get to the same point in just 35 years. From there, he says...

SIKICH: We can see pretty much 99 percent extinction within 15 years on average.

ROTT: The park service and outside groups have been lobbying for a nature overpass that would give wildlife a bridge from these mountains to others that would hopefully allow for more genetic diversity and give our cute little kitten, P-54, more of a chance. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.