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Los Angeles' Mountain Lions Are Trapped and Suffering

Aug 14, 2014 02:48 PM EDT

A recent study of mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains has found that they are inbreeding and killing one another off in one of the messiest and alarming results of habitat fragmentation conservationists have ever seen.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, details how freeways and home construction around Los Angeles has penned in Santa Monica Mountain lion families, preventing them from breeding with other California lion populations.

"There's almost no movement out [of the Santa Monica Mountains]. That's resulting in fathers mating with daughters, adult males killing close relatives or killing their offspring," study author Seth Riley of the National Park Service told the Los Angeles Times.

According to the study, the LA highway network, called the "Southland freeways," has essentially become an impenetrable barrier of asphalt and rolling steel, trapping once proud and explorative mountain lions to a small and limited habitat since as early as the 1960s.

Conservationists call this habitat fragmentation and isolation - when man-made (or sometimes natural) barriers arise that break a healthy and wide-spread habitat into smaller and isolated parts. These smaller habitats will almost always inevitably degrade, with populations slowly losing their genetic diversity and health with each trapped generation.

Last month, Nature World News reported how the New England Cottontail is suffering from a similar situation, in which the traditionally explorative rabbit is getting caught between buildings and rivers.

However, while things might be bad for the cottontail, things can get much worse for aggressive predators like the Santa Monica mountain lion. (Scroll to read on...)

Riley recently explained to The Atlantic's City Lab that mountain lions are very territorial, and traditionally roam vast swaths of land.

"It's typically advantageous for male lions to fight, kill, or run off other males. But in a normal situation, every male disperses," he said. However, with the mountain being so isolated, "what ends up happening is you have these interactions that shouldn't be happening - fathers are killing their sons and vice versa."

The result is rampant inbreeding and offspring with cardiovascular and mental deficiencies.

So what can be done? According to the study, this is actually one of the first conclusive examples of this infighting and inbreeding occurring, and hopefully will raise awareness of the issue.

Thankfully, not every Santa Monica lion is doomed. Two years ago, the Santa Monica National Park Service tracked down a mountain lion named P22 who had successfully crossed the treacherous freeway. He became an instant favorite among local animal lovers, allowed by local officials to live in the Hollywood Hills.

However, life in the hills is lonely for P22. No lady lion has managed to brave the same journey so far.

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