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									Path of the Puma                           move through this environment? What
                                           physiological features allow them to
                                           do this? What are a puma's predatory
By Michelle Timmons
                                               Humans continue to encroach on
    At dusk one evening, high in the
                                           the habitat of mountain lions, leading
Santa Cruz Mountains, a young male
                                           to more frequent encounters between
mountain lion rises from his slumber,
                                           them. The team is using equipment
stretches his cramped legs, and
                                           developed at UCSC to learn about
silently begins his prowl. The setting
                                           these mysterious creatures and
sun still shines through bunches of
                                           determine how they survive in a
redwood trunks, allowing the last
                                           rapidly developing area.
hikers to make a swift exit before
                                               The team estimates that 28 adult
thick night fog camouflages their trail.
                                           mountain lions and 42 cubs reside in
They keep their eyes open and their
                                           the Santa Cruz Mountains, which
ears alert, for the looming threat of a
                                           stretch from south of San Francisco to
mountain lion's hunger and curiosity
                                           Monterey County. For instance, a 5-
make them reconsider their decision to
                                           year-old 133-pound male puma,
remain in the forest this late.
                                           named No. 3, is the first mountain lion
    The hikers safely enter their truck
                                           under observation. Scientists now
and drive along Highway 17, a major
                                           know that No. 3 regularly roams
corridor connecting Santa Cruz to the
                                           through the Bonny Doon area near
greater Bay Area. The highway also
                                           Santa Cruz. It occasionally crosses
slices straight through the mountain
                                           Bonny Doon Road, a hilly two-lane
lion's habitat, creating a dangerous
                                           road through the woods, and it tends
barrier between him and the
                                           to occupy a range of 70 square miles.
surrounding landscape.
                                               “Nobody is in danger,” says an
    A new project at UC Santa Cruz
                                           assured Wilmers. “Mountain lions are
promises to reveal how roadways and
                                           generally uninterested in human
urban development affect the local
                                           affairs.” None of the cats shows signs
mountain lion population. The study,
                                           of poor health.
known as the Bay Area Puma Project,
                                               Mountain lions are solitary
is the first of its kind. Now in its
                                           animals. They spend most of their
second year, the study examines the
                                           time in their territory alone, defending
lives of mountain lions—also known
                                           it from invaders. They prefer to eat
as pumas—using innovative
                                           deer, but pumas will also prey upon
technology, with hopes to shed new
                                           coyotes, raccoons, and other small
light on one of the region's top
                                           animals. These cats stalk their prey
                                           until the opportunity arises to pounce.
    The project leader is Dr. Chris
                                           They grasp their victims tightly with
Wilmers, a wildlife ecologist and
                                           their claws, sinking their teeth into the
assistant professor at UCSC. Together
                                           back of the neck with a fatal bite.
with Dr. Terrie Williams, an animal
                                           Pumas hide carcasses too large to
physiologist, also at UCSChe is
                                           finish in one sitting and save them for
aiming to answer several unexplored
                                           a later meal.
questions about mountain lions: What
                                               Since June 1890, sixteen people
is their habitat range? How do they
have been victims of a mountain lion
attack in California. Six of the attacks       During the project's first year, the
were fatal. The California Department      team gained permission and signed
of Fish and Game warns that mountain       contracts with land owners in the
lions, like any wild animal, can be        Santa Cruz Mountains. Learning the
dangerous, but a person is 1,000 times     landscape of the mountain range
more likely to be struck by lightning      requires time and patience. Since then,
than attacked by a mountain lion.          they have caught six mountain lions
Disease, such as rabies or feline          and collared each one with a global
leukemia, may cause a mountain lion        positioning satellite (GPS) tag. The
to display unusually bold behavior         collars were developed by UCSC
toward humans. As more people move         electrical engineering graduate student
into the cats’ habitat, it has become      Matthew Rutishauser. The device
more common for the mountain lions         records each lion's location every 20
to prey on livestock and pets. Any         minutes, as well as continuously
mountain lion that attacks a person or     measures its physical activity. The
acts strangely near a civilized area is    researchers get a record of every
hunted down and killed.                    sprint, every moment of rest, every
   Scientists want to know how             time the animal takes a drink of
individuals from one mountain lion         water—and every kill.
population can disperse to neighboring         “The movement during a strike is
populations. Their findings may            so different from other movements
suggest ways to reduce mountain lion       that it will leave a unique signature in
encounters with humans. Wilmers,           the data,” says Williams. She plans to
who received his Ph.D. at UC               use this information to calculate how
Berkeley by studying wolves in             many calories the animal burns
Yellowstone National Park, has always      through daily activities. The data
been interested in studying the impacts    assesses how vulnerable the pumas are
of predators on an ecosystem. He is        to disturbances in their environment.
especially curious to learn how a large    Williams conducted previous research
predator like the mountain lion can        on dolphins, Antarctic seals, cheetahs,
coexist with humans in an area             and elephants using many of the same
surrounded by urban and agricultural       methods.
settings. Pumas risk their lives as they       Capturing mountain lions has
continually wander across major            proven difficult. Researchers first
thoroughfares and mountain ranges.         collect deer carcasses from roadkill
   “For a large-bodied animal, they        and place them in areas where
need to be able to get to other ranges.    mountain lions range. Every morning,
The Santa Cruz Mountains aren't            they check to see if a lion has fed on
enough,” Wilmers says. “Without            it. If they see signs of nibbling,
connectivity between other ranges,         researchers place a cage or snare to
such as the Diablo Mountains, they         hold the animal captive. If the deer is
will eventually go extinct.” This top      left untouched, then the team uses
predator is essential to maintain          hound dogs to search for mountain
balance in the local ecosystem,            lion signs. If a dog finds a lion, it
Wilmers notes.                             chases the lion up a tree where the
researchers tranquilize it with a dart     to expand its research to include the
gun.                                       Diablo Range in the East Bay, as well
   “The process never goes                 as the North Bay. Wilmers and
smoothly,” states Wilmers. The ground      Williams also plan to adapt the collars
needs to be just wet enough to mold        to other large predators, especially
footprints, and the cat's scent does not   wolves.
carry well enough in hot, dry air for a       Most hikers walking along the
hound to sniff out. Throughout the         moist, dirt paths of the Santa Cruz
region, cameras capture images of          Mountains aren't aware that they are
pumas and other species roaming            deep in the territory of the beautiful
through the area to help the               and elusive mountain lion. Even if we
researchers track their movements.         never see one, it will be good to know
   Anyone coming within range of a         what these lions are up to.
mountain lion should not run. Instead,
biologists advise people to face the       #####
animal, make loud noises, and try to
look bigger by waving arms. Rocks or       Michelle Timmons, a senior majoring
other objects thrown at the puma may       in ecology and evolutionary biology,
scare it away.                             wrote this article in spring 2009 for
   While the Bay Area Puma Project         SCIC 160: Introduction to Science
does entail conservation of the species    Writing.
and its habitat, researchers do not
expect the population to grow from
their efforts. Rather, the team hopes to
have a full picture of the area's puma
residents and their activities within
five to ten years.
   Williams and Wilmers have
recruited the help of Zara McDonald,
executive director of the Marin
County-based nonprofit organization,
the Felidae Conservation Fund. This
group is dedicated to protecting all
wild species of cats and their habitats.
She would like to see a combination of
scientific research, education, and
public outreach improve the
connection between humans and
mountain lions. “We need to educate
people on how to respect the mountain
lions' habitat and their need to move
within their range, as we encroach
more on their habitat and guarantee
increased encounters,” McDonald
   The Bay Area Puma Project plans

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