DNA Results Shed Light on Dead Santa Monica Lion

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Date: June 14, 2012
Contact: Kate Kuykendall, 805-370-2343
Contact: Dr. Seth Riley, 805-370-2358

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. - Recently released DNA results from the mountain lion that wandered into downtown Santa Monica confirm the young male was genetically tied to the local population and not a pet. Significantly, the animal was found south of the 101 Freeway and yet possessed genetic material from populations north of the freeway, a rare bright spot for a group of animals that is suffering from a lack of genetic diversity. Out of concern for public safety, Santa Monica police killed the lion after attempts to sedate it failed.

"The biggest threat to mountain lions in this region is the loss and fragmentation of their habitat because of past and current urbanization," said Dr. Seth Riley, an expert on urban wildlife with Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA). "Over the long-term, isolation of a small population of large carnivores such as mountain lions can result in inbreeding, reduced genetic diversity and even significant genetic defects."  

Because the Santa Monica lion is genetically linked to lion populations north of the 101 Freeway, biologists speculate he may be the son of Puma 12, known as P-12. P-12 is the only mountain lion documented to successfully cross the 101 Freeway, thereby contributing new genetic material to the isolated lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains. Alternatively, the Santa Monica lion may have himself crossed the freeway. In either case, the lion could have contributed unique genetic diversity to the genetically homogenous population in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Lions from the Santa Monica Mountains are hemmed in by the 101 and 405 freeways, making the lack of genetic diversity a serious threat to their long-term survival. Biologists from SMMNRA, a unit of the National Park Service, are currently tracking five mountain lions as part of a decade-long study to better understand how the animals survive in such an urbanized landscape. The study has already documented cases of "first order" inbreeding in which a father lion mated with his offspring.

National Park Service biologists, along with other community groups, will participate in a meeting with the Santa Monica Police Department in late June to help formulate a strategy for addressing this unique case, should it arise again. An agency biologist arrived on the scene after the lion had been killed. After examining the lion to determine its age and gender, he submitted tissue to the lab of Robert Wayne at UCLA, which conducted the genetic analysis.

The DNA results do not shed light on how the mountain lion traveled to downtown Santa Monica, but his behavior is typical of the "dispersal" stage during which young adult male lions branch out looking for new territory because of threats from larger male lions or in search of a mate. Based on information gathered from GPS collars, at least two other male mountain lions have crossed from the Santa Monica Mountains south of Sunset Boulevard. 

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA) is the largest urban national park in the country, encompassing more than 150,000 acres of mountains and coastline in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. It comprises a seamless network of local, state, and federal parks interwoven with private lands and communities. As one of only five Mediterranean ecosystems in the world, SMMNRA preserves the rich biological diversity of more than 450 animal species and 26 distinct plant communities.   


Last updated: November 1, 2018

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