UCSC Researchers Have a Mountain Lion Kitten

Read on if you like mountain lions, pumas, cougars, kittens, cubs, Santa Cruz Mountains, Santa Cruz Puma Project, UCSC.

by Brendan Bane

Sept. 13, 2013—A newborn mountain lion has entered the world and been enlisted in UCSC’s Santa Cruz Puma Project. By tracking her progress, scientists hope to learn how best to conserve the kitten’s species.

It was deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains, among fallen oak leaves and the blooming buckeyes of late July, when the adult mountain lion known as "7F" gave birth to a spotted, caramel-colored kitten. One month later, the band of scientists who comprise the Santa Cruz Puma Project fit the baby lion, now "research subject 40F," with a monitoring collar.

Since 2008, these scientists, in partnership with the California Department of Fish and Game, have monitored adult cats with GPS tracking collars. The collars allow researchers to answer questions about mountain lion physiology, ecology, behavior and conservation.

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40F is one of only four kittens to have been included in the project's seven-year history. The first three, a litter, were tagged when the study began. Only one remains under surveillance (she is more than four years old and has established her own territory). Her first sibling fled the group before her tracking equipment was upgraded. The second, a male, was shot for eating a goat.

40F offers another rare chance to learn about what kinds of factors determine whether mountain lion kittens survive.

“Conservation wise,” says field biologist and Puma Project team member Paul Houghtaling, “we have some questions about kitten survival.”

Human interaction, diminished prey and many other factors can affect a kitten’s chance of thriving into adulthood. If scientists understand how those influences work, they can make informed choices when deciding how best to cultivate healthy puma populations.

The Puma Project recently released a paper on its work published in the open-access, peer reviewed scientific journal PLOS One. The study, Scale Dependent Behavioral Responses to Human Development by a Large Predator, the Puma, explored how human development (roads, buildings, suburbs) impacts puma behavior. Its authors found that, for mountain lions to uninhibitedly conduct commonplace puma errands (patrolling territories, hunting deer, etc.), they require a distance buffer of about 200-325 feet between themselves and people. But like the rest of us, they sometimes want some privacy—to engage in breeding behavior, adult cats require at least four times as much space.

Such studies help scientists and conservationists predict how pumas will fare in response to environmental changes, or which portions of land are good candidates for future reserves.

But until recently, the research team’s inquiries were limited to adult cats. 40F represents a new layer of depth to their approach—they can now ask questions about kitten wellbeing.

“Consider a lion from the remote mountains and a lion from an urban edge kind of habitat,” Houghtaling says, “and they’re probably going to live pretty different lives and be subjected to pretty different kinds of stresses. We’re curious how kittens are related to that.”

Ultimately they’ll need more than a few kittens to draw any meaningful conclusions, Houghtaling says.

“40F represents just one data point. To learn much of anything, we’re going to have to tag a bunch of kittens. There may be 15 of them 3 years from now. This is just the beginning.”

For now, 40F and her mother will be left alone. At four months old, the two are likely just starting to visit hunting grounds together. Soon 40F will begin capturing small animals on her own. But she won’t leave her mother’s side for another year and a half, after which she’ll depart in search of her own territory. When she does go, the scientists of the Puma Project will be poised to track her progress.