In a part of California badly scorched by the devastating Woolsey Fire, the National Park Service found three bobcat kittens — bobkittens, if you will — inside the charred cavity of an oak tree. It’s a sweet sign that animals are finding ways to adapt to the climate crisis, but also a sad reminder that they shouldn’t have to do so.
Agency biologists came across the kitties while studying and tracking the bobcats of Southern California. More than a year after the 2018 Woolsey Fire, they captured a fully grown female bobcat in the Simi Hills, which stretch from the coastal Santa Monica Mountains to ranges inland.
The scientists put a radio tracking caller on the adult bobcat and dubbed her B-370. They then traced her movements and actions to learn how bobcats survive as their wild habitats disappear due to climate disasters and urban development.
In April, the research team began to notice that B-370 was repeatedly returning to one particular location in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, suggesting that she may have given birth and put her babies in a den there. The researchers headed out to that spot but were having trouble finding the bobcat (or should I say momcat). They also saw no signs of a den. But then, park biologist Joanne Moriarty looked up into a hole in a nearby tree and saw her face poking out. Peekaboo.
“I swear she’s in this tree, but I can’t find her,” Moriarty said in a statement, referencing what she told a fellow ranger who was searching as well. “Then I look up into this little tiny hole in the tree, and her face is just poking out at me. Of course, she’s been staring at me the whole time. I just happened to be in the right spot.”
Moriarty used a remote camera attached to an extension pole to get a better look. This revealed three other smaller faces in the tree. There’s a video of this encounter, which you absolutely must watch right now.
The biologists came back with a ladder the next day to more closely examine the bobkittens, weighing and measuring each one and giving them general health check-ups. The kittens weighed just a bit more than a pound (0.5 kilograms) apiece. Before returning the kittens to their tree den, the scientists also tagged their ears for future identification.
The whole situation shows bobcat mums are low-key geniuses when it comes to protecting their young. The researchers say the tree den is highly unusual. Normally, the cats hide their babies in cleared parts of the thick chaparral or coastal sage shrubland. Sometimes they’ll stash them in vacated woodrat nests.
But these days, there’s not a lot of vegetation around for the bobcats to den in in this particular area. The Woolsey Fire decimated the landscape, burning nearly 100,00 acres, and very little natural habitat has grown back since. The fire also claimed the lives of wildlife, including at least one mountain lion that was also radio-collared and closely followed by NPS and big cat aficionados alike. The state has recently slipped back into exceptional drought, making matters even worse in an already parched and devastated landscape.
That makes it all the more amazing that this momcat managed to find cover for her bobkittens, and the best way to show her we appreciate her hard work is to preserve what’s left of Southern California’s mountain ecosystems. We can do that by planning development in ways that doesn’t exacerbate fire risk or destroy bobcats’ homes — and drawing down carbon emissions to ensure dangerous fire weather conditions don’t become even more common.