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How do you decide which mountain lions are tagged and which ones are not? and what are the challenges when tagging a mountain lion and how often are they tagged? and lastly, how often do hikers encounter mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains?
Question Date: 2018-04-04
Answer 1:

Mountain lions are amazing animals, aren’t they? When I was doing field work near Santa Ynez, I had a trail camera set up and I still remember how excited I was when I saw a photo of one.

But back to your questions.

Usually, when scientists are tagging animals they try to tag as many as possible. It helps to get a picture of how the animals interact and move around, even who is related to whom. But researchers are limited by how many cats they can actually capture to collar or tag, how many tags or collars they can afford, and how many they get permission to tag or collar. Which animals they tag can depend on their questions.

For example, if they want to find out about where young animals go to establish territories, they might just tag the youngest animals. If they want a general picture of cat behavior, they might try to spread collars out to get both sexes and different ages.

When tagging any animal, you have to be careful with safety of both humans and animals. An animal like a mountain lion has to be tranquilized with a dart containing a drug that will temporarily put the animal “out” like a person getting surgery. But researchers have to be careful not to dart an animal when it’s in a high place where it could fall and be injured, near water where it can drown, or near other animals that might injure it. They also have to use the correct dosage so the animal will wake up eventually (but not too soon). In other cases, researchers use cage-like traps and bait. Then they drug the animal when it is in the cage. Others use snares for capturing, or use trained dogs to chase cougars into trees to dart them. When they dart a cat in a tree, climbers have to safely lower it.

Because darting or capturing is such a big deal, teams usually gather as much information as they can while the animal is drugged. They may take blood samples, tooth measurements, weights, size and body condition measurements, make age estimates, check reproduction status (is she pregnant or nursing?), etc. One person is usually in charge of just monitoring the animal to make sure it’s doing okay, but also not about to wake up. Researchers also have to make sure that the animals and people are safe during the “wake up” process. Some drugs wear off on their own. Usually a second drug wakes the animal up. That’s a dangerous time because no one wants the cat to stagger into a dangerous situation, but they also don’t want to be too close when it gets alert enough to go after them.

Some tags are just that, a numbered tag (usually on the ear) that will identify the cat or its body later on. Young cats only get tags because a collar would be too big and heavy, and would get tighter as they grew. PIT tags, like many pets get at the vet, go under the skin. If someone runs a scanner over the right place on the cat, information appears on the scanner. Some collars give off signals so that people can track the animals. Some even give off GPS signals that satellites can pick up, but these are bigger and need bigger batteries. They’re also expensive. Some collars even have the ability to dart the animal in the future. Some collars have technology like smart phones—accelerometers that tell how fast and how much a cat is moving!

Researchers choose collars that will not injure the animals or change their behavior. All research on mammals like mountain lions has to be approved by boards that try to balance research needs with humane treatment of animals. There are also laws and regulations to follow. After a study ends, collars are usually removed so they don’t cause any problems.

Here’s a great blog entry about a biologist removing a collar from a mountain lion for the last time because his study was ending

removing a collar .

Don’t be confused by the name puma. Mountain lions are called many names, including puma, cougar, and panther. That’s why scientific names were invented. All over the world, this animal is called Puma concolor by scientists.

Do you know that YOU can track mountain lions in California?
Go to and click on the boxes .

Each one is an individual cat. Numbers that end in M are males, F is for females. Look for patterns. Do males and females have different size territories? Do they overlap? Do they avoid different areas? Remember that there a lot of untagged mountain lions out there too.

According to this site: puma page , sightings of mountain lions in the Santa Monica mountains are “extremely rare.” Mountain lions tend to avoid humans and they’re very good at staying hidden. I spent hundreds of hours on my study site near Santa Ynez, and I never got to see one.

If you are interested in a career doing studies like this, look into wildlife biology or behavioral ecology. Thanks for asking,


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