A female puma in the Verdugo Mountains overlooking the Los Angeles nightscape. Inbreeding in small, isolated populations can lead to reproductive failure and other problems. (Photo credit: National Park Service)

The first complete genetic sequences of individual mountain lions point the way to better conservation strategies for saving threatened populations of wild animals.

Meghan Rosen, HHMI | UCSC | October 18, 2019

When students at UC Santa Cruz found a dead mule deer on campus, they figured it had been killed by coyotes. Wildlife biologist Chris Wilmers rigged up a video camera to spy on the carcass at night. But the animal that crept out of the shadows to dine on the deer was no coyote—it was a mountain lion.

Mountain lions, or pumas, stay close to their prey, “so it must have been hiding in a nearby gorge all day,” said Beth Shapiro, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCSC and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

The persistent puma was already well-known by Wilmers, a professor of environmental studies at UCSC who had radio-collared and tagged the animal, dubbed 36m, as part of a long-term study of California mountain lions. Now 36m is becoming even more famous as the first puma to have its complete genome deciphered by scientists.

In a paper published October 18 in the journal Nature Communications, Shapiro, Wilmers, and their colleagues reported that the information in 36m’s genes may lead to better conservation strategies.

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