At four weeks of age, mountain lion kittens are little more than balls of fluff with tiny claws and ice blue eyes.
But if they can survive long enough, each mewling newborn will soon grow into a formidable predator, and every individual that reaches adulthood is enormously important for the population at large.
That's why biologists were thrilled to locate two new litters of mountain lion kittens hidden away deep in Southern California's Santa Susana Mountains. (See pictures of another litter of kittens found in California.)
With so much development and so many highways, mountain lions in Southern California exist in small islands of habitat, says Jeffrey Sikich, a biologist with the National Park Service's Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
That makes areas like the Santa Susanas a “critical stepping-stone” that allows the animals to move from one pocket to another.
“Monitoring these kittens, especially as they grow to [young adults], is especially valuable because it will help us understand how they disperse throughout the area,” says Sikich.
Searching for Kittens
Mountain lions tend to make their dens far from human habitation, usually in dense brush or deep within rock crevices and caves.
That means finding the kittens requires some detective work. Each morning, Sikich sits down at his computer and reviews the GPS coordinates from the 14 mountain lions in the region currently fitted with collars.
Earlier this year, he noticed that an adult male dubbed P-38 had spent a few days traveling near a six-year-old female called P-35. And again, a few weeks later, P-38’s data showed he was spending some quality time with another female known as P-39.
“Mountain lions are solitary animals,” says Sikich. “Males are usually only with females for breeding.” (See National Geographic pictures: "Studying the Secretive Cougar.")
Sure enough, when Sikich went hunting for kittens four months later, he found five bright-eyed faces peering at him. P-35 had given birth to two female kittens (P-48 and P-49) in a thicket. Likewise, P-39 now had three newborns—two males and a female (P-50, P-51, and P-52)—stowed away in a dark crevice between two boulders.
The Next Generation
The data gathered from finding the kittens is extremely valuable.
“Our lions in the Santa Monica Mountains have some of the lowest genetic diversity ever recorded outside the Florida panther, which nearly went extinct,” says Sikich.
By trekking up into the mountains to gather data from the new kittens, scientists can keep track of the animals as they age, relocate, and reproduce on their own. It’s possible that one of the males from the Santa Susanas will one day venture down to the Santa Monica Mountains and bring some much needed genetic diversity with him.
Unfortunately, says Sikich, biologists have only seen that sort of north-to-south genetic transfer once before in the region. (Read "Tracking Mountain Lions in California's Urban Jungles.")
That isn’t to say it couldn’t happen again, though—especially as local communities warm to the idea of restrictions on development and wildlife corridors designed to connect patches of habitat, he says.
Until then, Sikich will keep checking GPS readouts each morning and hoping one of his new recruits gets lucky.