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FILE - In this undated file photo provided by the California Department of Fish and Game shows a mountain lion. While mountain lion populations are healthy across California, the situation is becoming increasingly dire for the isolated population in the Santa Monica Mountains. Lions need as many as 100 square mile territories but the estimated 10 cats in this mountain range are hemmed in by freeways and other development and without a way to link to the greater population, biologists say the Santa Monica Mountain lions will go extinct. DNA tests indicate that mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains are inbreeding, another sign of the challenges facing the species struggling to survive in the midst of one of the nation's most densely populated urban regions. (AP Photo/California Department of Fish and Game, File)
DNA tests show S. California mountain lions are inbred
First Published Jan 09 2014 11:24 am • Last Updated Jan 09 2014 01:49 pm

Los Angeles • Three mountain lion kittens born last month in the Santa Monica Mountains were inbred, a wildlife expert said, marking a troubling sign for a population penned in by the urban sprawl of metropolitan Los Angeles.

Preliminary DNA tests indicate that the male and two females born in the Malibu Springs area were sired by an adult male and his daughter, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area announced Thursday.

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The mother was tracked by a radio collar as part of a decade-long study of the local puma population, and the 3- to 4-week-old kittens were given ear tags, said Seth Riley, an urban wildlife expert with the recreation area, which is a unit of the National Park Service.

Two other kittens born in 2012 were produced by the same mother and father, he said.

Over the years, researchers have found seven mountain lions that were the products of inbreeding, Riley said.

Riley says the kittens were healthy but there’s concern that without new blood, eventually inbreeding could cause physical defects, such as heart problems and sterility.

The lions live in a patchwork of local, state and federal parkland that stretches westward from Los Angeles into Ventura County.

About a dozen pumas roam the area, but it’s a tight squeeze when adult male pumas typically each have huge territories, Riley said.

The area is surrounded by densely populated areas and is bounded by such major highways as U.S. 101, which is heavily developed along most of its length.

"There’s almost no place left where there’s natural habitat (along the route) ... it’s just a huge barrier for all animals," Riley said.

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Young male mountain lions that typically would seek their own territories have been unable to leave and have been killed by an older male, Riley said.

"Their movements are totally circumscribed by the freeway," he said, noting that one young male was struck and killed by a car in October. The animal crossed eight lanes of roadway but couldn’t jump a 10-foot-high retaining wall topped with chain-link fencing.

"That makes this inbreeding more likely than it might otherwise be because the young animals can’t get elsewhere," he said.

In addition, other animals cannot easily move into the area from Los Padres National Forest and other neighboring wilderness areas, contributing to low genetic diversity, Riley said.

Research on the local puma population "shows that conflict with other lions, rodenticide poisoning and vehicle collisions are the top causes of death among more than 30 lions studied," the recreation area statement said.

The recreation area, state parks, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the California Department of Transportation and others have long sought about $10 million in funding to create a wildlife corridor in the Agoura Hills area — essentially, a tunnel that would allow the mountain lions and other animals to cross under U.S. 101.

There are plenty of mountain lions in California, but Riley said he thinks it’s "amazingly cool" that a population still survives in the Santa Monica Mountains, in the midst of the urban sprawl.

It would be a shame if they disappeared, he said.

"It would be an ecological loss and even a cultural loss," Riley said. "These wild places that we spend millions of dollars to preserve — they would be a bit less wild."

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