Researchers hope to find, tag new animal
By Tony Biasotti, tbiasotti@VenturaCountyStar.com
October 17, 2006
One by one, the dominant male among a family of six mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains had been killing off the others. First, a year ago, the mother of his kittens died. Then two of the four offspring were killed, the last one in mid-September.
So on Sept. 25, when the tracking collar of one of the remaining offspring went on "mortality mode" — meaning that the cat hadn't moved for at least eight hours and might be dead — researchers studying the mountain lions thought that the father, known as P1, had struck again.
They found the body of P8, the young mountain lion, near Topanga Canyon, said Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. P8's wounds showed that he had been killed in a fight with another mountain lion, Riley said.
But when Riley and the rest of the research team investigated the killing, they found something unexpected and exciting: P8 had apparently been killed by an adult male, but P1 hadn't been anywhere near him at the time. Records downloaded from his tracking collar placed him far to the west, near Point Mugu.
The researchers believe that another adult male mountain lion is prowling the Santa Monica Mountains, skirting the farms, shopping centers and backyards of Ventura County. His killing of P8 suggests that he might be headed for a showdown with P1, for years the dominant male in the area.
The violence is normal behavior for mountain lions, which constantly compete for food, status and territory.
"We have always said that just because these are the only lions we're following, it doesn't mean there aren't any other lions in the area," Riley said. "But we certainly don't think there are very many more. It will be very interesting to see what happens now."
The question is whether there is enough room in the Santa Monica Mountains for both adult males, Riley said. The next step will be finding, sedating and capturing the new cat so it can be fitted with a tracking collar.
"That's the whole point of our study, to see what the viability of these guys is here," said Riley, an assistant professor of ecology at UCLA. "The habitat that's here seems like it's high-quality ... but it's a small habitat for them."
The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is about 250 square miles, stretching from Point Mugu in the west to Interstate 405 and the Hollywood Hills in the east.
Researchers now know of three mountain lions in the area: P1; his daughter, P6, and the newly discovered male. Each cat is assigned a number following the letter P, for puma, another name for the species.
They've been behaving exactly as mountain lions should behave, Riley said. They hunt deer and other prey, mate, fight with each other occasionally and generally stay out of the way of people, although P1 did kill eight goats on a Malibu farm in 2003.
They've been tracked in every part of the Recreation Area, but they've never made it north across Highway 101.
"We've been doing this a little over four years, and we have not had any animals cross the 101," Riley said.
The freeway cuts the Santa Monica Mountains off from the rest of Southern California's wilderness. Riley said there are a few places where a mountain lion might cross, such as the Liberty Canyon underpass in Agoura Hills.
"Unfortunately, there's very few places left," he said. "It's basically a development corridor. There aren't many places where there's natural habitat right up to the freeway on both sides."
If the Santa Monica Mountains prove too small for two aggressive males, one might try to leave by moving north across Highway 101.
On the other side, he might have to navigate some human habitat, but beyond that lies Los Padres National Forest.
It extends all the way to Big Sur and is home to hundreds of mountain lions, Riley said — and plenty of deer for them to hunt.