Mountain Lions In California Face Genetic Decay Because They Are Being Isolated By Highways

A mountain lion keeps watch while her juvenile cubs feed. Image: UC Davis

Mountain lions in southern California, cut off by highways and human development, are facing a severe loss of genetic diversity.

The study led by the University of California, Davis, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, is published in the journal PLOS ONE,.

It raises concerns about the current status of mountain lions in the Santa Ana and Santa Monica mountains as well as the longer-term outlook for mountain lions across southern California.

UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine scientists collected and analysed DNA samples from 354 mountain lions, including 97 from southern California.

Pumas in the Santa Ana Mountains displayed lower genetic diversity than those from nearly every other region in the state.

The Santa Ana Mountain range, located south of Los Angeles and north of San Diego, is surrounded by urbanisation and a growing population of about 20 million people.

A small habitat linkage to the southeast connects pumas to the Peninsular Range, but it is bisected by Interstate 15, a busy 10-lane highway, and associated human development.

“The genetic samples give us a clear indication that there was a genetic bottleneck in the last 80 or so years,” says Holly Ernest, now a professor at the University of Wyoming, Laramie.

“That tells us it’s not just natural factors causing this loss of genetic diversity. It’s us – people – impacting these environments.”

The mountain lions are at a point where they can be monitored and protected.

Possible measures include protecting migration corridors and some lands slated for development which could connect the Santa Anas to areas in the east as well as installing protective corridors for the lions to navigate busy highways.

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