LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
OK, now for some cute but worrying science from the animal world. The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area posted a photo earlier this week that is insanely adorable. It's of a newly found mountain lion kitten. Its eyes are still a milky blue. But the birth of the kitten amidst the urban sprawl of Southern California is exciting to wildlife lovers and biologists. But there's a sobering element to this story, as NPR's Nathan Rott found out.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Operation kitten chase.
With our guide...
JEFF SIKICH: I'm Jeff Sikich, biologist for the National Park Service.
ROTT: ...And resident expert, Sikich has been tracking mountain lions in these steep chaparral-covered canyons almost daily for more than a decade, hiking or driving, like we are today, along the maze of busy freeways and residential roads and homes that surround, bisect and crisscross this National Recreation Area.
SIKICH: Yeah, we're the largest urban national park.
ROTT: With the Pacific Coast on one side and the greater Los Angeles sprawl on the other, it's a big deal, Sikich says, that these large carnivores are able to successfully breed.
SIKICH: So I'm plugging her frequency in now.
ROTT: Sikich has already tagged the kitten we're looking for - P-54, as she is named - with a tiny VHF transmitter.
SIKICH: Yeah, so that's her. Right there you can hear that pulse rate going.
ROTT: Which means the kitten is somewhere in the scrub nearby. Now, I'm not going to bury the lead any more here for you. We're not going to actually see this kitten. She's down to the bottom of a steep overgrown canyon, best as we can tell, and Mom is there too, so not really a good idea to go marching in.
Knowing that I won't see the kitten, can you confirm for me, how cute is it?
ROTT: You don't audibly go awww.
SIKICH: I don't think I do. No, I don't. But it's definitely, you know, it's super cute cool.
ROTT: Oh, do you hear that? He almost said it. But really, this isn't entirely a feel-good story. More than likely, P-54, our cute little kitten, is the result of inbreeding because this place is like an island. Surrounded by all those people and roads, mountain lions have a nearly impossible time coming and going, which limits the available gene pool. That can lead to birth defects.
SIKICH: Holes in the heart besides, like, kinked tails and colics.
ROTT: Sikich says they've seen that with the Florida panther. And research shows that if nothing changes here, the Santa Monica mountain lions could get to the same point in just 35 years. From there, he says...
SIKICH: We can see pretty much 99 percent extinction within 15 years on average.
ROTT: The park service and outside groups have been lobbying for a nature overpass that would give wildlife a bridge from these mountains to others that would hopefully allow for more genetic diversity and give our cute little kitten, P-54, more of a chance. Nathan Rott, NPR News.
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