Los Angeles and Mumbai, India, share many superlatives as pinnacles of cinema, fashion, and traffic congestion. But another similarity lurks in the shadows, most often seen at night walking silently on four paws.
These metropolises are the world’s only megacities of 10 million-plus where large felines — mountain lions in one, leopards in the other — thrive by breeding, hunting and maintaining territory within urban boundaries.
Long-term studies in both cities have examined how the big cats prowl through their urban jungles, and how people can best live alongside them — lessons that may be applicable to more places in coming decades.
“In the future, there’s going to be more cities like this, as urban areas further encroach on natural habitats,” said biologist Audra Huffmeyer, who studies mountain lions at the University of California, Los Angeles. “If we want to keep these large carnivores around on the planet, we have to learn to live with them.”
FREEWAYS AND FRAGMENTED HABITAT
Twenty years ago, scientists in Los Angeles placed a tracking collar on their first cat, a large male mountain lion dubbed P1, that defended a wide swath of the Santa Monica Mountains, a coastal range that lies within and adjacent to the city.
“P1 was as big as they get in southern California, about 150 pounds,” said Seth Riley, a National Park Service ecologist who was part of the effort. “These dominant males are the ones that breed — they won’t tolerate other adult males in their territory.”
With GPS tracking and camera traps, the scientists followed the rise and fall of P1’s dynasty for seven years, through multiple mates and litters of kittens. “2009 was the last time we knew anything about P1,” said Riley. “There must have been a fight. We found his collar, blood on a rock. And never saw him again. He was reasonably old.”
Since then, Riley has helped collar around 100 more mountain lions in Los Angeles, building a vast database of lion behavior that’s contributed to understanding how much territory the cats need, what they eat (mostly deer), how often they cross paths with people and what may imperil their future.
As with medieval European kings, the biggest threat turned out to be inbreeding. Living in small territories separated by highways has caused some males to mate with daughters and granddaughters, who weren’t able to naturally disperse farther away. That’s led to genetic problems such as fertility issues and kinked tails.
“Based on genetic analysis, we know that P1 mated with P6, his daughter – that was the first case we documented of this very close inbreeding,” said Riley.