Cats small and large are typically exemplars of grace – which, of course, makes their occasional missteps and tumbles all the more ungraceful-looking. More often than not, though (and the whole landing-on-their-feet thing proves the point), their superb agility comes through in a pinch and sees felines recover before actually falling flat on their whiskered faces.

A case in point comes to us courtesy of a motion-sensor backyard camera in Greater Los Angeles, and the rare brush with clumsiness comes executed by that lithe, velvet-footed, long-tailed prowler called the puma. (Or mountain lion. Or cougar. Or panther. Or catamount. Whatever floats your boat, basically.)


The video, shared with the Thousand Oaks Acorn newspaper by homeowner Renee Merrill, shows the big cat striding through Merrill's neighbours' yard in Thousand Oaks, California around midnight. The interloper stumbles at the lip of a covered whirlpool spa, then bounds its way across (needless to say, had the cover not been in place there would have been roughly 100% more splashing and 100% more drenched puma).

Merrill learned from Jeff Sikich, a National Park Service biologist, that the lion in the video is an adult male called P-55. The cat had previously been collared in ongoing Park Service research on local pumas focused on the nearby Santa Monica Mountains. According to Merrill (leery of such a carnivore so close to her property, where she has rescue animals), Sikich guessed P-55 likely made his way out of the neighbourhood.

At first glance, the Santa Monicas – an isolated crest of the Transverse Ranges shoved between the Pacific Ocean and the human sprawl of Greater LA (including Thousand Oaks to the north) – seem an unlikely place to harbour big cats. But a small roster of cougars does indeed prowl the mountains, going about their business in and around one of the Western Hemisphere's biggest metropolitan complexes.

(The emblematic image of local puma presence? Surely Steve Winter's National Geographic photo of a muscle-bound tom, P-22, strolling by with the world-famous Hollywood sign on the skyline. The wild king of Griffith Park, P-22 is the subject of a new exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.) 

California is home to roughly 4,000 to 6,000 pumas: many of them denizens of the state's impressively vast backcountry, but a notable share living cheek-to-jowl with the state's equally impressive human population. For more than a decade, the National Park Service has been studying the pumas of the Santa Monica Mountains and surrounding portions of Greater LA for insights into how they survive in a habitat so fragmented and penetrated by humanity.

P-22 snapped in Griffith Park back in 2014. Image: National Park Service

Thanks to this research – which has meticulously tracked the movements of many resident lions by GPS collar – we know the greater Santa Monica Mountains population of pumas is quite healthy in some respects: steady numbers, good survival and reproductive rates. They're certainly not wanting for food: there's plenty of black-tailed deer (their favoured prey) around, plus smaller critters to round out the menu. (Coyotes, another carnivore famously present in Southern California's urban jungle, are the most popular puma food after deer in the area, followed by those other classic city-slickers, raccoons.)

But it's certainly not all rosy for these lions, and not just because of hot tubs unexpectedly materialising along nighttime prowling routes. 

Because busy freeways and other manmade infrastructure choke off their territory, pumas in and around the Santa Monicas have a hard time dispersing and spicing up their gene pool with cats from other areas. As it has for the similarly isolated Florida panther, inbreeding could become a major cause for concern for these big cats. The Santa Monica Mountains pumas have one of the lowest levels of genetic diversity of any known population, and modelling from last year suggested they could go extinct in the next half-century

Sikich, the Park Service biologist, spelled out the basic limitations resident pumas face in a Q&A with the Los Angeles Times a few years ago. "An adult male mountain lion can roam from 200 to 250 square miles," he said. "The [Santa Monica] mountains are roughly 275 miles, bordered by hard barriers – the ocean, the freeways, the Oxnard agricultural fields. We can fit maybe one or two adult males and a sprinkling of four to six females – females have a much smaller range."

As this Park Service writeup explains, rodenticides and road collisions claim some cats, but the leading cause of death is intraspecific conflict: tangles with other pumas. That's a mountain-lion reality anywhere, but biologists suspect it may be amplified by the hemmed-in situation in the Santa Monicas. 

Biologists and conservationists stress the need for greater connectivity between core habitat blocks in the LA metro area to secure a future for its unique native pumas. A cornerstone of that effort is installing a wildlife crossing on the 101 Freeway, the chief obstacle to emigration and genetic interchange for pumas in the Santa Monicas. (Learn more about the hoped-for crossing at the Save LA Cougars website.)

That spa-leaping puma, meanwhile, is only the latest carnivore action picked up this year by residential remote cameras in metro LA. Remember that coyote crossing paths with garbage-raiding black bears a few months ago?



Top header image: Pixabay