Tracking pumas

UCSC students get first-hand scientific experience while monitoring the elusive big cats as part of the Puma Project

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This Puma Project video captures a mother bobcat and her kitten making their way through the forest.

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In this one, two collared mountain lions, a male and female, are out for a late-night stroll.

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Graduate student Yiwei Wang, right, in the field with Taal Levi (Ph.D. '12, environmental studies). 

Researchers with UC Santa Cruz's Puma Project have seen some interesting sights from their remote cameras: a bobcat carrying a snake in its teeth, wild pigs mating, and, a few times, the backsides of human hikers mooning one of the project's hidden lenses.

Captured by 50 automatic, motion-triggered cameras, the images are all in a day's work for students sorting through a slide show of animal life for a research project that aims to answer a thorny question: How does human development affect the notoriously solitary and secretive mountain lion?

In the name of science, students also may be called upon to scramble up a brushy hillside behind braying dogs on the scent of a big cat, or hike through the forest in search of cougar kills. They may be asked to analyze video that will help refine a state-of-the-art tracking collar developed at UCSC. Sometimes, they may even be requested to extract a pesky skunk from a puma trap.

"Two years ago, I never would have dreamed I'd being doing anything like this," said Lee Hibbeler, a 22-year-old environmental science and biology major interning with the project, "but I feel like this is completely where I am meant to be."

The Puma Project operates out of a few spartan offices in the Interdisciplinary Sciences Building on campus, although its research range encompasses Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Mateo counties.

Associate Environmental Studies Professor Chris Wilmers started the project in 2008 after he became interested in the way cougars live so close to the Bay Area's urban sprawl. It's not that these creatures prefer human company; it's just that human beings keep poking their shoulders into mountain lion territory, with far-ranging results.

"Habitat fragmentation has a huge impact on species, and the most vulnerable species are the large predators," said Wilmers, who once studied the wolves of Yellowstone Park. "There wasn't a lot of research on how animals adapt and respond" to human development.

That's why Wilmers stepped in. With major funding from the National Science Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation—along with help from the California Department of Fish and Game—the study has monitored 36 animals to understand how roads, construction, and farming have affected mountain lions' health, dietary needs, and range. A dedicated group of graduate and undergraduate students, along with field biologist Paul Houghtaling, help drive the research, with aid from a pioneering tracking collar developed at UCSC.

The collar, a 1½-inch wide rubber strap with two small grey containers, carries a GPS device to mark a mountain lion's location and an accelerometer that allows scientists to better interpret the animal's behaviors.

The collar was developed with the aid of an $820,000 National Science Foundation grant and the collaboration of Wilmers, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Terrie Williams, and Associate Professor of Engineering Gabriel Elkaim.

Now in its third incarnation, the tracking collar allows researchers to record an animal's activities and lay that over data about vegetation, geography, and the location of buildings and roads. The collars churn out a steady stream of information that lets researchers know whether the creatures are resting, hunting, or even wandering nearly to San Francisco, as one cougar did.

The result is a growing understanding of an animal that needs a range of 15 to 150 square miles to survive, along with data that could lead to more effective policy decisions to minimize conflict between animals and humans.

For instance, the project honed in on two places where cougars have crossed busy Highway 17, sometimes with fatal results. The finding may help Cal Trans develop wildlife-crossing culverts in places that will provide these animals with the best chance to escape an encounter with a 65-mph machine.

Sitting on a quiet balcony near the project's lab, 30-year-old graduate student Yiwei Wang talked about work currently being done to refine the tracking collar's information stream. She and others are correlating the activities of captured cougars with data received from their tracking collars.

According to Wang, an estimated 80-100 adult mountain lions roam the Central Coast's hills—some in sight of the office buildings and sprawling homes of Silicon Valley. They slip across running trails, saunter through rural neighborhoods, and yowl into the forest looking for a mate—a world most urban dwellers never see.

The fact these animals wander the edges of one of the world's technology centers makes it natural for social media to play a big role in the project. Videos, photos, tweets, and even a Facebook game are all part of the project's scientific outreach.

Undergraduate intern Hibbeler is working on an interactive website for her senior project and hopes to go to graduate school some day. Her experience with the Puma Project changed her life, she said.

It taught her teamwork, patience, and, most importantly, it gave her a confidence she never had.

"I went from someone being lost in the crowd at UCSC to organizing a talk by Chris (Wilmers) where 50 to 100 people showed up," she said. "I'm very passionate about this."