An existential drama is unfolding within earshot of that famous Los Angeles traffic, overlooking the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean at the edge of California. A female mountain lion called P-19 (P stands for puma, which is another name for mountain lions, Puma concolor) and two of her three cubs, called P-32 and P-33, have taken down a mule deer in the Santa Monica Mountains. The carcass will provide important sustenance for the lioness and her growing cubs who, at about 15 months old, are just about to leave the comfort of home and strike out on their own. The cubs will need lots of energy (and plenty of good sense) if they are to survive in the urban-wild matrix that is Southern California. (Editor's note: Some of these photos show predation behaviour and are not for the squeamish.)
The new photos were captured by a camera trap placed by US National Park Service researchers working in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. By the time they were taken in mid-February, one of P-19's cubs, called P-34, had already dispersed, leaving its two siblings behind.
Some news reports are hailing these stunning photos as welcome evidence that the remaining two cubs are still alive – there was some worry that P-33 (the female cub) had gone missing. But it turns out that the 'missing' cub was confirmed alive when she showed up in some grainy camera trap photos several months ago.
"At that point we knew she must be alive, but we weren't sure if she had already dispersed from mom. We didn't know she was still around mom until these latest photos," explains National Park Service ranger Kate Kuykendall.
Just after these new photos were taken, biologists were able to capture P-33 and affix her with a GPS collar, much like the one you can see on her brother in the photos below. "It's exciting because these two kittens are actually the first that have had GPS collars on them before they dispersed, so we can learn more about this very important process with some really detailed data points," Kuykendall adds.
It's certainly welcome news that the cubs appear to be safe, but starting now their lives will only become more challenging. Since researchers began studying these cats in 2002, they've never confirmed a male successfully dispersing out of the Santa Monica Mountains and into nearby territories, mainly because the wilderness is carved up by a network of highways and roads. If P-32 makes it, it would be truly historic.
Kuykendall suspects that the cubs, nearly mature mountain lions themselves, have already left their mother's side and are even now trying to stake out new territories and find mates. And that's a tricky proposition when speeding cars lurk at every turn.
For updates on P-19 and her kittens, head over to the Park's Facebook page!
Additional reporting by Sarah Keartes.
Top header image: Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area/Facebook