Connecticut Mountain Lion Likely Came From The Black Hills

Originally published on July 27, 2011 6:41 pm

A mountain lion hit and killed by a car in Milford, Conn., last month was a long way from home, most likely the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Biologists used DNA sampling and other physical evidence to link the 140-pound male cat to a journey of nearly 2,000 miles. The AP reports:

"Genetic testing showed the cat had the same genetic structure of the mountain lion population in South Dakota's Black Hills region. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service Wildlife Genetics Laboratory in Missoula, Mont., matched the DNA with samples collected from a cat that was spotted in eastern Minnesota near Minneapolis and in northern Wisconsin from late 2009 through early 2010."

The big cat was also seen in Greenwich, Conn., before it was killed, the first confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in the state since 1880, according to the Hartford Courant. The paper also notes that the animal picked up a name along its journey:

"Nicknamed the St. Croix mountain lion during his time in Wisconsin, the cat was definitively linked to four sites in the two states through genetic testing of scat, blood and hair found in the snow during late 2009 and early 2010. He also was captured on video by trail cameras. Additional mountain lion sightings were confirmed at eight other sites in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but could not be linked to the same animal."

Update at 5:16 p.m. ET:

On All Things Considered, Robert Siegel talked with Kristy Pilgrim, laboratory supervisor for the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Montana, which carried out the DNA testing and analysis that determined the cat's origin. You can listen to the audio via the player at the top of this post.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And joining us now is Kristy Pilgrim, who is the laboratory supervisor for the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Montana. She and her team used DNA testing to piece together the mountain lion's path. How do you know the mountain lion came from South Dakota?

KRISTY PILGRIM: Well, we have a genetic database comprised of over 800 individual mountain lions or cougars from various locations all over the west. So we have samples from population from South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, et cetera. And first of all, when we received those tissue samples from the mountain lion killed by the vehicle in Milford, Connecticut, we were able to perform DNA analysis to obtain a unique genetic profile for the animal.

SIEGEL: So, first, you identified the mountain lion that was hit by the car in Connecticut as coming from South Dakota, from the Black Hills, and then it also matched with the traces of a mountain lion in other states between South Dakota and Connecticut.

PILGRIM: And when we compared the data to that, we found a match. We found that this male cougar that was killed in Connecticut was a match to a male cougar that was detected in Minnesota and Wisconsin in December 2009 and into the spring of 2010.

SIEGEL: So somehow between the spring of 2010 and the late spring, early summer of 2011, a year later, it would seem that this particular cougar made it from Wisconsin to Greenwich.

PILGRIM: Yep. That seems correct.

SIEGEL: I mean, obviously, this isn't your field, but one would have to challenge any such results by saying, is it possible?

PILGRIM: Well, you know, I'm not the expert field biologist. But certainly, young male animals and carnivores, in particular, are known to make long-distance treks.

SIEGEL: Have you had a result like this before, a match from such disparate places?

PILGRIM: No, I - not quite like this. Our laboratory was involved in genetic analysis of a different cougar that was actually shot in a suburban neighborhood of Chicago, but that wasn't nearly as far the distances as this particular case with Connecticut.

SIEGEL: Well, that's commuter distance compared to what this mountain lion did. Well, Kristy Pilgrim, thank you very much for talking with us today.

PILGRIM: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: All right. Kristy Pilgrim is the laboratory supervisor for the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Montana. They identified the mountain lion that was hit by a car and killed in Connecticut last month. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.