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Scientists track cougar's wild nightlife above Hollywood

The mountain lion — known as P-22 — living in Griffith Park is giving scientists insight into the behavior of an urban puma on the prowl.

October 04, 2013|By Martha Groves
  • The lights of Hollywood glow behind P-22, a 125-pound mountain lion in Griffith Park. The photo was taken by Steve Winter with a remote trail camera and will be published in December's National Geographic magazine. Winter's work will appear in "The Power of Photography: National Geographic 125 Years” at the Annenberg Space for Photography, opening Oct. 26.
The lights of Hollywood glow behind P-22, a 125-pound mountain lion in Griffith… (Steve Winter / National…)

For more than a year and a half, the solitary mountain lion known as P-22 has made himself right at home in Griffith Park within view of Hollywood's Capitol Records building.

By night, he cruises the chaparral-covered canyons, dining on mule deer, raccoon and coyote. By day, while tots ride the Travel Town train and hikers hit the trails, he hunkers down amid dense vegetation.

To researchers' knowledge, the 125-pound 4-year-old is the most urban mountain lion in Southern California and possibly beyond — surviving and thriving in a small patch of habitat surrounded by freeways and densely packed human beings that he reached, somewhat miraculously, by crossing the 101 and 405 freeways.

VIDEO: Scientists track cougar in Griffith Park

P-22 is giving scientists insight into the life and eating habits of a puma on the prowl. And he is serving as an unwitting but alluring subject for a National Geographic wildlife photographer whose trail cameras have captured jaw-dropping nighttime shots of the animal, including one that features the Hollywood sign.

"He has it quite easy for a young lion in Griffith Park," said Jeff Sikich, a National Park Service biologist tracking P-22. "There's no competition, and there seems to be plenty of prey for him."

Sikich, part of a National Park Service team that has captured and collared more than 20 cougars in the Santa Monica Mountains during a long-term study, is among a small group of scientists who have studied P-22's behavior since March 2012.

If hikers, equestrians or other park users have encountered P-22 during the day, they haven't alerted Sikich. He said that there has been "possibly one credible sighting" but that the lion has been "doing what a lion should do: finding his natural prey and staying elusive."

Biologists say P-22 probably entered the park in February 2012, after a journey of 20 miles or so from farther west in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Sometime later, the mountain lion triggered a remote camera set up for a wildlife survey. On Feb. 29, 2012, Miguel Ordeñana, a biologist working on the survey, began culling a couple of weeks' worth of mundane images of deer and coyotes. Hoping for a bobcat, he was startled to see the massive hindquarters and tail of a much larger animal. He later found the first photo of the lion, which showed his face.

"From what I'd been told and what I knew, it was seemingly nearly impossible for a mountain lion to be there," he said. "I almost thought I had seen Bigfoot or a chupacabra." (A chupacabra is a ferocious, blood-sucking creature of urban legend.)

Although a dead cougar was found in the park in 1995, and parkgoers reported sightings in 2004, this was the first photographic evidence of a lion inhabiting the park. In fact, the photos taken were the first known images of any mountain lion within the mountain system east of Cahuenga Pass, the National Park Service said.

Sikich set humane traps with cameras, rigged to send images to his cellphone. At 2 o'clock one morning in March 2012, his cellphone rang, and he and other scientists hurried to the site, a Department of Water and Power property just west of the park. Sikich used a blowpipe to administer a sedative to the mountain lion and attached a collar with GPS and very high frequency radio signal technology.

The collar regularly sends data to a website via satellite or cellphone tower. Biologists remotely track an average of eight locations a day, mostly at night when the animal is active. They watch particularly for "location clusters," indicating spots where the lion has been feeding.

Using the location data as a guide, they have bushwhacked or crawled through poison oak and thick vegetation to find what was on P-22's menu. Once in the vicinity, they follow their noses.

"For fresh kills, smell is very telling; it smells like rotten meat," said Laurel Serieys a PhD candidate in biology at UCLA who's a project volunteer.

She and Ordeñana recently spent four arduous hours hiking in to four "kill sites" in deep ravines or on steep hillsides. At the first location, right off a paved road in the park, they found only the malodorous rumen, or stomach, of a deer. They surmised that coyotes had dragged the deer's body away.

Next, at the bottom of a ravine, Serieys found a coyote carcass, with part of the muzzle intact. Ordeñana said this was the first documented P-22 kill that was not a deer. Their excitement at the discovery was tempered by a concern: Coyotes eat rodents that have been exposed to rat poison. Two mountain lions that were collared for the National Park Service study died from rodenticide poisoning.

At the third site, they found a rib cage and skull with antlers attached: another mule deer.

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