Twelve of the big cats have been killed on roadways since scientists began tracking them in 2002, and this Monday marked another death.
The victim was P-32, a 21-month-old male struck by a vehicle as he attempted to cross the interstate near Castaic, California (map) in the wee hours.
One of several cougars that roam Los Angeles' sprawling metropolitan region, P-32 was known for his prowess in navigating busy freeways, a skill that made him the first male to successfully disperse from the Santa Monica Mountains.
Tracked since kittenhood, P-32 was also part of the same study project as P-22, a male cougar famous for living near the Hollywood sign. (Related: "New Pictures of Hollywood Cougar Show Sleeker, Healthier Cat.")
Though the L.A. suburbs may seem like a wasteland for wildlife, a surprising number of cougars—also known as mountain lions or pumas—call it home.
To the west of the city, where P-32 is thought to have been born, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area houses about ten adult cougars. South of the city, the Santa Ana Mountains may host as many as 20 more.
“The unique thing about this species is that it’s highly adaptable,” says Howard Quigley, executive director of jaguar and puma programs for Panthera, a nonprofit that supports big cat conservation.
Quigley says mountain lions can survive in almost every habitat in the Western Hemisphere, from alpine forests to Death Valley, and even in areas seemingly dominated by people.
Why Did the Cougar Cross the Road?
The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is made up of 250 square miles (about 650 square kilometers) of protected land. This sounds like a vast expanse of habitat, especially given its proximity to Los Angeles, but a single mountain lion requires a range of 75 to 200 square miles (about 200 to 515 square kilometers).
Male lions defend these territories and the breeding rights that come with them. This is why the National Park Service suspects P-32 was found so far afield—it’s likely he was trying to find some land not already claimed by a dominant male.
Data logged from a GPS collar on P-32 reveals that the animal successfully crossed at least four freeways in recent days before his luck ran out. (Related: "Tracking Mountain Lions in California's Urban Jungles.")
“Lots of animals are killed on highways each year, and California has been good about designing roads to reduce this, though lots more needs to be done,” says Quigley.
Mountain lions are stealthy predators, stalking and killing prey in habitats ranging from the high mountains to a suburban backyard. (See National Geographic pictures: "Studying the Secretive Cougar.")
The big cats sometimes get a bad rap for preying upon pets, but terriers and tabbies likely only make up a small proportion of the animals’ prey base.
According to research by the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, mule deer make up 94 percent of the Santa Monica cougars' diet. Raccoons, badgers, and coyotes round out the menu.
“Where there’s cat food, there are cats,” says Quigley.
“What P-32 taught us," he adds, "is that carnivores can live with people. It’s really whether we can live with carnivores.”