A mountain lion in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
(Sebastian Kennerknecht)
Environment

Lockdown-emboldened mountain lions ventured farther into urban areas, UCSC researchers say

UCSC researchers who have tracked pumas in the Santa Cruz Mountains for years saw that the big cats started moving closer to, or even into, more densely populated areas within days of shelter-in-place orders taking effect last year.

If it seems we heard more about mountain lions appearing in Santa Cruz County neighborhoods over the past year or so, you’re not imagining it.

New research from scientists at UC Santa Cruz found that when human activity came to an abrupt halt in 2020 after COVID-19 lockdown measures hit, mountain lions quickly adapted their behavior and began venturing much closer to urban areas.

The study was led by Chris Wilmers, an environmental studies professor at UCSC, and published in the journal Current Biology. Wilmers and his research lab continuously monitor mountain lions in the Santa Cruz Mountains area they’ve fitted with GPS collars, so they were able to compare the movement of six pumas before and during shelter in place — a period other researchers have dubbed “the anthropause.”

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“When the shelter-in-place orders started, it was immediately clear that things were very different,” Wilmers said in a news release from UCSC. “You’d go outside and there were very few cars. Entire neighborhoods were completely quiet. So we wondered how this might affect the mountain lion population. Would they respond this quickly to reduced human presence?”

As it turns out, they did: The big cats were significantly more likely to come close, or venture into, densely populated areas within weeks or even days of the first COVID-19 lockdowns.

Wilmers previously published research describing how mountain lions navigate a “landscape of fear,” carefully maintaining distance from human noise and activity because it is a big stressor for them. When fear moved humans to retreat into their own homes, pumas — and other wild animals — were emboldened.

“Humans have always been the top dog in landscapes of fear, but this study shows that those influences of humans can be reversed relatively quickly,” Wilmers said.