Dead Southern California puma would have spread genetic diversity

 

As I wrote in High Country News last spring, the pumas of Southern California's Santa Monica Mountains are dying — slowly, but quite literally — for lack of genetic diversity. Blocked from migration by freeways, development and the Pacific Ocean, the lions have begun to inbreed; researchers studying the lions have, through DNA tests, found multiple instances of fathers mating with daughters. If it keeps up, the population will go sterile, depriving the tiny ecosystem of its single apex predator.

That’s why it mattered so much that, last month during the government shutdown, a puma was found dead on the 101 freeway at Liberty Canyon, a well-known wildlife migration route between the Santa Monicas and open space to the north. When I blogged about that death then, several readers took the headline, “Who do you call?” to mean “who do you call to dispose of the body?” They offered advice, and even DIY techniques involving heavy gloves and netting.

P12RemoteCam.jpg
The puma known by researchers as P-12, the only puma known to have crossed successfully from open space, south into the Santa Monica Mountains. Photograph taken in July 2011, courtesy National Park Service.

I appreciated that. But what I really meant was, “who do you call to understand the magnitude of the loss? Where was the puma coming from and where was it going? What did its DNA say about its ancestry?” Fewer than a dozen pumas remain in this cloistered range; every loss here hits hard. I wanted to know what this one meant.

Unfortunately, there was no one around to ask. When the lion died, the National Park Service researchers who have been studying the animals for the last 11 years had been furloughed. Now that they're back, we have the answers. And it turns out this death is just about as tragic as it gets for the lions of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Seth Riley, an urban wildlife expert who works on the NPS puma study, says that his colleague, Jeff Sikich, was able to access the lion's body shortly after its death and collect samples, which he submitted to genetics labs at the University of California Davis and the University of California Los Angeles. So far the UCLA lab has analyzed 15 "loci" — specific positions on chromosomes occupied by "alleles," or DNA sequences. "And of those 15 loci," Riley says, "five had alleles that we never see in the Santa Monica Mountains, and have only seen north of the 101." Had the lion not been struck and killed by a passing motorist just after midnight on October 7, that genetic material might have soon been circulating among the pumas of the Santa Monicas.

The death underscores the need for some sort of safe passage wildlife could follow out of the Santa Monicas and back again at Liberty Canyon, which is "one of the only places along the 101 freeway where there's natural habitat on both sides," which is critical for animals to safely cross, Riley says. The last puma that came from the north, P-12, crossed here in early 2009, and from what Sikich observed at the site where the body was found, this recent lion seems to have made it all the way across the freeway and run up against a 10-foot right-of-way fence.

Screenshot20131107at9.55.00AM.png
Map courtesy of the National Park Service. Click to see more detail.

The California Department of Transportation has twice had grant applications rejected for a $10 million underpass at this site. Round three comes up soon.

Riley says there's much more work to be done on the lion's DNA —  scientists are hoping to test 54 loci, not just the 15 already analyzed.  But it's already clear that, had he been able to establish himself in the southern mountains and breed successfully as P-12 did, the now-dead lion's impact would have been huge. "When you have a small population and not a lot of reproductive males," Riley says, "individual migration events make a big difference."

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor to High Country News. She Tweets @judlew.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNING & BUILDING DIRECTOR
    Searching for candidates with a Bachelor's Degree in Planning, Community Development, or a related field with 7 years' experience in land use planning forums, including...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: