Two mountain lion kittens discovered by wildlife experts recently in the Santa Monica Mountains are the second documented case of inbreeding, park officials said Thursday.
The two kittens, a male and female dubbed Puma 23 and 24, or P-23 and P-24, are the product of a father lion who mated with his female offspring.
Experts from the National Park Service celebrated the birth, but also cautioned that the inbreeding can be the result of limited roaming space for male cats. Though Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is the largest urban national park in the country, freeways and urban life interrupt the flow of wildlife corridors, limiting breeding options.
Biologists said while not a concern yet, long-term inbreeding could lead to a population of mountain lions with genetic defects that could eventually decrease their population.
"The fact that successful reproduction is occurring in the mountains indicates that we have high-quality habitat for mountains lions here," said Seth Riley, a wildlife expert with the National Park Service.
But the long term is worrisome, Riley said. In the early 1990s, the population of panthers in Florida had decreased to less than 30. Because of a lack of genetic diversity, inbreeding occurred more frequently and panthers were born with kinked tails as well as heart defects. Some males couldn't mate anymore. In 1995, biologists brought in eight female cougars from South Texas to increase
the genetic diversity. The population has gradually increased.
Riley said he doesn't believe female cougars need to be brought in from the outside to Los Angeles because a larger population would not be beneficial.
"We're still hopeful that the Santa Monica Mountains can maintain enough connectivity," Riley said. "The population is as big as it's going to get. The problem is there's not enough space."
More than 90 percent of mountain lions stay in natural habitats, though males tend to wander farther to establish their own range and find females.
But with more freeways and development coming up against wildlife corridors, some mountain lions do roam into urban areas. Sometimes, older males will fight and kill younger ones to protect their territory.
Young males, such as the one shot and killed in May after he had wandered near Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, may have been running from an older male, experts have speculated.
Riley said the kittens' mother, P-19, was also a product of inbreeding. Puma 19's mother was the product of father and daughter mating.
Biologists said the kittens were born in mid-June in their den east of Circle X Ranch in Malibu. They have been fitted with tracking devices and their DNA tested at UCLA. Seven mountain lions are currently being tracked.
The kittens' father, known as P-12, is one of the few that has crossed on a wildlife corridor at Ventura (101) Freeway near Liberty Canyon, and has mated with females outside his family, said Jeff Sikich, a biologist with the National Park Service.
Those wildlife corridors give mountain lions such as P-12 and other animals a chance at surviving, Sikich said.
"What we need to work on is protecting and preserving these remaining natural areas and maintaining these connectivity corridors," Sikich said.
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