On Feb. 13 ENVS professor Chris Wilmers held an informational seminar "Mountain Lions and People in the Santa Cruz Mountains" in Classroom Unit 2. Wilmers and his colleagues at the Santa Cruz Puma Project have conducted groundbreaking research on mountain lion physiology, behavior and ecology since 2008. Photo by Prescott Watson

Recent mountain lion sightings have led members of the campus community to wonder: Are we in danger of being mauled by ferocious beasts? Unlikely, says Christopher Wilmers, wildlife ecologist and environmental studies assistant professor. Wilmers led the Feb. 13 seminar, “Mountain Lions and People in the Santa Cruz Mountains” at UC Santa Cruz campus. Although the recent influx of Cruz Alerts may conjure images of bloodthirsty cats stalking the UCSC campus for their next bite of tasty freshman, mountain lions pose little threat to students and Santa Cruz residents.

“I like to think about other things are more dangerous,” Wilmers said. “I read in the front of Harper’s Magazine once about 10 people that year who had impaled themselves on their toothbrushes. A mountain lion is an animal that can and occasionally will kill a human being, but to put it in perspective, since the origin of the statehood of California there have been 16 attacks and only six of them have been fatal, and two of them actually because the lions’ rabies, not the attack itself.”

Wilmers heads a research project called Santa Cruz Pumas, centered on the movement and distribution of mountain lions in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

With state-of-the-art GPS tracking collars, Wilmers and his research team are studying habitat fragmentation and the role of mountain lions in their ecosystem.

“These large predators can have these profound effects on ecosystems” Wilmers said.

Santa Cruz Pumas uses GPS tracking collars to track the behavior of mountain lions as it relates to human populations. The GPS collars collect information through satellites, an accelerometer to measure movement, and a magnetometer, which calculates the orientation of the collar in relation to the earth’s magnetic field.

“We want to understand their behavior and how that correlates with where they are in space, how they behave when they’re near humans, how they behave when they’re far away from humans,” Wilmers said.

Because the Santa Cruz Mountains are sectioned into a strip of land cut off by the ocean in the West and an urban megalopolis of concrete on the North and East, local mountain lions are forced to coexist in a kind of “Habitat Island.”

This habitat fragmentation has a lot of impact and can cause injury to the lions.

With the data presented by the GPS tracking collars, Wilmers’s team is able to track mountain lions with precision. One mountain lion was shown to have stayed in one area for an unusually long time, and GPS data showed the cat had crossed Santa Cruz’s Highway 17. Photos taken by cameras in Santa Cruz forests show a large section of skin missing from the mountain cat’s bottom, which led the researchers to think the cat was hit by a car on the highway and dragged.

These predators’ effect on the ecosystem is also of interest to Wilmers and his team.

“We know very little about what happens after they prey on deer, how that trickles down to the smaller mammals, to the plants, to the rest of the ecosystem,” Wilmers said.

He compared the research to that at Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were recently reintroduced to the landscape. Once wolves are done feasting, other scavenger species feast on the remain and are better able to survive through the winter and reproduce, thus creating a more stable ecosystem.

This kind of wider system understanding is precisely what Wilmers hopes to gain from the Puma Project.

With the GPS tracking collars, Santa Cruz Pumas is following three main mountain lion behaviors: movement, denning and communication. Wilmers can also investigate where mountain lions go to mate and build their “dens,” clusters that provide shelter for their young, data that could help the Santa Cruz Pumas build statistical models.

Fragmentation of habitat space is their primary concern. The team is working with CalTrans to provide better crossing points for wild life, like fences which would lead to redesigned culverts, hopefully reducing mountain lion roadkill.

So, what to do when faced with a roaming mountain puma? Make yourself look big, make noise, or simply run away. A study a UC Davis found in cases where a person ran from the mountain lion, they were more likely to get away, but if attacked, more likely to be killed.