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Researchers study cougar's lineage

The female, found recently in the Santa Monica Mountains, could be descended from the habitat's lion king. If so, researchers say, that could prove the ecosystem is viable for mountain cats.

August 18, 2009|Nicole Santa Cruz

A recently discovered female cougar could be a princess.

The cougar, a mountain lion named Puma 13, or P-13 for short, may be a descendant of the dominant king of the Santa Monica Mountains, Puma 1, a serial cougar killer who took the lives of his mate and two of four offspring.

P-13 was recently captured by staff members of the Santa Monica Mountains, equipped with a radio tracking collar for research and released back into the coastal range. DNA samples taken from blood and tissue samples during the capture will determine if P-13 is related to P-6, the only remaining offspring of P-1, who was the first mountain lion studied by biologists with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in 2002.

The biologists have been studying the area, which spans 153,075 acres, to determine how large animals survive in a highly urbanized environment.

There are only two other mountain lions being tracked by biologists in the area, males named P-10 and P-12. Though the lions live around the Topanga and Malibu creek areas, male lions are known to roam across the Santa Monica Mountains. P-13, who is presumed to be about a year old, is the first female cougar to be tracked in two years.

If P-13 is related to P-6, it could show that the area is a viable ecosystem for mountain lions, said Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist with the National Park Service.

"It means there's successful reproduction going on, which is a good thing," Riley said.

The study could be used as a model for other urban areas on how to coexist with large animals such as the cougars.

As Southern California's population swells and freeways along the Santa Monica recreation area become more congested, it's more difficult for the mountain lions to survive because they have less room to roam. Male lions need about 250 square miles of habitat, and female lions need about 60 square miles, Riley said.

In February, P-12 crossed the 101 Freeway at Liberty Canyon, which is seen as a barrier for the animals.

"It's such a big freeway with so much traffic that a lot of animals don't even try," Riley said.

Currently, scientists estimate that there are fewer than 10 mountain lions in the area, including the three being tracked with collars.

Freeways aren't the only threat to a cougar's survival.

It's not uncommon for lions to fight and kill each other. Usually, cougars will kill other males to eliminate potential competition. Riley said it's possible that P-2 -- P-1's mate -- was defending her offspring when she was killed by P-1.

"The bottom line is there isn't space in the Santa Monica Mountains for more than 10 animals," Riley said.

The results of the DNA test will be ready in about two weeks, said Lauren Newman, the policy and external affairs manager for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

"It's exciting. It's our royal mountain lion family in the Santa Monica Mountains," she said.

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nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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