Extinction vortex dynamics of top predators isolated by urbanization

John F. Benson, Peter J. Mahoney, T. Winston Vickers, Jeff A. Sikich, Paul Beier, Seth P.D. Riley, Holly B. Ernest, Walter M. Boyce

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Extinction risk is elevated in small, isolated populations due to demographic and genetic interactions. Therefore, it is critical to model these processes realistically in population viability analyses (PVA) to inform local management and contribute to a greater understanding of mechanisms within the extinction vortex. We conducted PVA's for two small mountain lion populations isolated by urbanization in southern California to predict population growth, extinction probability, and loss of genetic diversity with empirical data. Specifically, we (1) provide the first PVA for isolated mountain lions in the Santa Ana Mountains (SAM) that considers both demographic and genetic risk factors and (2) test the hypothesis that variation in abundance and mortality between the SAM and Santa Monica Mountains (SMM) result in differences in population growth, loss of heterozygosity, and extinction probability. Our models predicted 16–21% probability of local extinction in the SAM due purely to demographic processes over 50 yr with current low levels or no immigration. Our models also predicted that genetic diversity will further erode in the SAM such that concern regarding inbreeding depression is warranted unless gene flow is increased, and that if inbreeding depression occurs, rapid local extinction will be highly likely. Dynamics of the two populations were broadly similar, but they also exhibited differences driven by larger population size and higher mortality in the SAM. Density-independent scenarios predicted a rapidly increasing population in the SMM, whereas growth potential did not differ from a stable trend in the SAM. Demographic extinction probability and loss of heterozygosity were greater in the SMM for density-dependent scenarios without immigration. However, higher levels of immigration had stronger, positive influences on both demographic viability and retention of genetic diversity in the SMM driven by lower abundance and higher adult survival. Our results elucidate demographic and genetic threats to small populations within the extinction vortex, and how these vary relative to demographic structure. Importantly, simulating seemingly attainable increases in connectivity was sufficient to greatly reduce extinction probability. Our work highlights that conservation of large carnivores is achievable within urbanized landscapes, but requires land protection, connectivity, and strategies to promote coexistence with humans.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere01868
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 2019


  • Puma concolor
  • demographic stochasticity
  • extinction
  • heterozygosity
  • inbreeding
  • mortality
  • population viability analysis
  • urbanization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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