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Record Numbers Of Mountain Lion Kittens Were Born This Summer (And We Have Photos)

Biologists handle a kitten from P-19's litter. (Courtesy Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area)
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2020 might be remembered as one of the worst years in recent human history, excluding one thing and one thing only: mountain lion kittens.

National Park Service biologists have found a record number of lion dens over the past three months in the Santa Monica Mountains and Simi Hills -- five to be exact, with 13 kittens tucked inside.

This is the first time in the 18-year-long study of the species that this many dens has been found within such a short period of time, according to the park service. The highest previous record was four dens, found across a 10-month span in 2015.

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The record is surprising, given that the Woolsey Fire burned about half of the lions' habitat. That said, scientists are currently studying how the pandemic, which greatly reduced human activity, has affected wildlife behavior.

Researchers have been studying the cougars since 2002 -- so far they've identified and tracked about 94 of them with GPS collars.

Two kittens from P-65's litter (Courtesy Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area)

Jeff Sikich is one of the wildlife biologists who's been studying the local mountain lion population.

"We found these dens because a number of females were traveling with males," he told our newsroom's culture and local news show Take Two, which airs on the radio at 89.3 KPCC. "And mountain lions are solitary animals so, males and females are typically only together during breeding events."

He explained that once researchers saw the mountain lions together, they counted 90 days on the calendar (the gestation period for the species) and watched the females to see if they were exhibiting "denning" behavior.

Sikich and his team then waited for the mother to leave the dens to hunt, tracking her by GPS. While she was gone, the team:

  • Went into the dens to gave each kitten a general health check
  • Took various body measurements and biological samples
  • Took photos and videos (Thank you, scientists)
  • Placed an identifing ear tag on each of the kittens
  • Returned them to the den before the mother came back

He said all of the 13 kittens looked "good and healthy."
But the job was no small task. Sikich said even with the GPS tracking, the dens can sometimes take hours to find, since they're hidden in extremely dense chapparal.

All that work is worth it, though.

"It's amazing, even at two or three weeks of age, they'll start to open their eyes," he said. "And they have these beautiful blue eyes. Even at a young age, though, they're still snarling at you."

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And now, kitten photos, courtesy of the National Park Service via the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area Flickr page.

P-54's den, home to babies P-82, P-83 and P-84, who like to sleep cuddled in a tiny ball/ swat at each other with their paws. The video also shows them feeding. [Note: the "P" in their names is for puma, another name used for these big cats.]

P-65's den with kittens P-88, P-89 and P-90. There are some pretty loud wild kitten screams in this one, be warned.

A kitten from P-80's litter.
P-67's baby.
Two more from P-67.
P-67's litter again.
P-65's litter has the most dramatic eyes.
This is a mood.
P19's litter
P19's litter
P19's litter