Los Angeles is one of only two megacities in the world (the other is Mumbai) that have big cats living within the city limits. In a place more often associated with freeways and traffic, the fact that the city can support such large-ranging animals is a testament to the quality of open space and the habitat connectivity that still remains.
The National Park Service has been studying how mountain lions survive in an increasingly fragmented and urbanized landscape since 2002. Researchers have monitored more than 50 mountain lions in and around the Santa Monica Mountains. GPS collars provide detailed information about the animals' ecology and behavior.
Big Cats, Big Challenges
The good news for mountain lions in and around the Santa Monica Mountains is that the population is stable, with healthy rates of survival and reproduction.
The long-term survival of mountain lions in this region, however, is threatened by a number of factors, none more significant than the loss and fragmentation of habitat by roads and development. This leads not only to deaths from vehicle collisions, but also multiple cases of first-order inbreeding because animals are not able to disperse in and out of the area. Genetic analyses indicate that lions in the Santa Monica Mountains have among the lowest genetic diversity of any mountain lion population ever documented.
Another major threat to the species is the widespread presence of anticoagulant rodenticides, commonly known as rat poisons, in the environment. 13 of 14 mountain lions tested in the study have tested positive for one or more anticoagulant compounds and three have died of intoxicant poisoning. See infographic.
The number one cause of death for mountain lions in the study is intraspecific strife, or mountain lions killing other mountain lions. Though common in other populations, this rate may be exacerbated by the fact that mountain lions are basically trapped on an island of habitat, surrounded by freeways and the Pacific Ocean.
Restoring Habitat Connectivity
The long-term survival of a mountain lion population here depends on their ability to move between regions to maintain genetic diversity and overall population health.
A solution to address this issue -- a wildlife crossing across the 101 Freeway, the biggest barrier between the Santa Monica Mountains and other large natural areas -- is currently being drafted by Caltrans. A private fundraising initiative, Save LA Cougars, is raising money for the effort.
If a wildlife crossing was built across the freeway, it would allow for mountain lions living north of the Santa Monica Mountains to travel into the range and for animals living south of the freeway to disperse out of the area.
A joint UCLA and National Park Service study recently found that the mountain lion population faces possible extinction.
From the very first study animal and former king of the mountains (P-1), to the only mountain lion documented to cross from north of the 101 Freeway to the south (P-12), to the famous mountain lion living in Griffith Park (P-22), each of these animals have helped us better understand the challenges and also the opportunities for keeping the population healthy and viable.
Read about each of the more than 60 study animals here.
Maps, Photos, & Videos
All maps and photos are part of the public domain (no need to request permission prior to using, though attribution to "National Park Service" is appreciated).