Biologists in California got a holiday surprise last December—a pair of brand-new, blue-eyed mountain lion kittens peeking out of a den.
The team stumbled upon the youngsters—whose picture was recently released by the National Park Service—while keeping tabs on a female named P-19 in the Santa Monica Mountains. Since 2002, the scientists have been using tracking devices, such as GPS collars, to study the behavior and movements of big cats living on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
While newborns are always cause for celebration, the kittens could be particularly important, depending on who the father is, says Jeff Sikich, biologist for Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
P-19’s previous two litters were both sired by her father, P-12, which he says is inbreeding of the first order. This reduces the genetic diversity—and ultimately future survival—of the region’s small mountain lion population.
Scientists stumbled upon mountain lion kittens, a male and a female, while doing research in the Santa Monica Mountains. PHOTOGRAPH BY NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
For one, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is roughly 250 square miles (about 650 square kilometers) of protected land, only enough space to support a maximum of 15 of the wide-ranging species at any given time—only one or two of which can be adult males.
“I like to think of it as an island of habitat,” he says.