Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

By David Ganezer
Observer Staff Writer 

Can Orphaned Mountain Lion Kittens Survive? Some Experts Say it's Possible

We wondered about the fate of p-39's three Cougar Cubs. Is there any hope for them?


December 19, 2016

Lasia Kretzel/News Talk Radio

A six-month-old baby cougar entertains and informs kids and parents at Gardenscape, at Prairieland Park in Saskatoon, Canada.

We wondered about the fate of Mountain Lion P-39's three cougar cubs. Their mother's death occurred on the 118 freeway east of the Rocky Peak exit on the evening of Saturday, December 3, but NPS heard about the accident a few days later.

Jeff Sikich who works for the National Park Service, found the collar and knew the animal had been killed. Her body was collected by sanitation workers, said NPS' Kate Kuykendall.

"Navigating our complex road network is a major challenge for mountain lions in this region," said Sikich, a biologist with Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. "Unfortunately, it's unlikely that the kittens have developed the hunting skills to survive without their mom."

Not every biologist agrees with Sikich. This from National Geographic:

"In a 10-year New Mexico study, 10 of 10 kittens five months old or younger died when orphaned, whereas an eight- and ten-month old survived (Logan and Sweanor in 2001). In a Utah study of 11 orphaned kittens, five died between the ages of 4-6 months, a nine-month old was killed on a depredation permit after being independent for six weeks, and five others disappeared without researchers determining their fate (Stoner et al. 2006). In more recent research in the northern Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Garnet Mountains of Montana, only 13 of 22 kittens that became independent (either orphaned or dispersed) between 7-12 months survived (Newby et al., unpublished data).

But perhaps these numbers obscure the truth: Orphaned or dispersing kittens are rarely monitored intensively enough to determine their fate.

Thus, perhaps it's more accurate to say that we're still deciphering what factors influence orphaned kitten survival, as well as what percentage of orphaned kittens actually survive. This is especially important in areas where cougar hunting is legal, and the question as to what happens to kittens orphaned when their mothers are killed has yet to be answered. Orphaned kittens in research projects across the U.S. typically just disappear, and researchers are taught to assume the worst."

The Wikipedia article on Cougars says they begin to hunt small game at six months:


P-49, P-50 and P-51 when they were just one month old, in June 2016. P-50 is female, she has 2 brothers.

"Only females are involved in parenting. Female cougars are fiercely protective of their cubs, and have been seen to successfully fight off animals as large as Grizzly bears in their defense. Litter size is between one and six cubs; typically two. Caves and other alcoves that offer protection are used as litter dens. Born blind, cubs are completely dependent on their mother at first, and begin to be weaned at around three months of age. As they grow, they begin to go out on forays with their mother, first visiting kill sites, and after six months beginning to hunt small prey on their own. Kitten survival rates are just over one per litter. When cougars are born, they have spots, but they lose them as they grow, and by the age of 2 1/2 years, they will be completely gone."

The kittens were not collared, and they were not being tracked. No one knows exactly where they are now. NPS isn't searching for them, and neither, to my knowledge, is anyone else. But wild animals have a resilience born of necessity. Maybe, just maybe, we'll see P-49, P-50 and P-51 again.


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