Inbreeding among mountain lions in Southern California is leading to genetic abnormalities that threaten the animal's existence.
Biologists with the National Park Service have detected several defects among cougars in the Santa Monica Mountains this year, including crooked tails and undescended testicles.
It's the first time such manifestations have been observed in Los Angeles' modest mountain lion population, and could be a harbinger of their extinction in just a few decades.
Conservationists hope to increase their genetic diversity with a 'wildlife overpass' that would connect animal populations to other wildlife north of the city.
Scroll down for video
A close-up of P-81's kinked tail. If drastic measures aren't taken to improve genetic diversity among the cougars of the Santa Monica Mountains, researchers estimate they will go extinct within a few decades
'This is something we hoped to never see,' said wildlife biologist Jeff Sikich in a statement.
'We knew that genetic diversity was low here, but this is the first time we have actually seen physical evidence of it. This grave discovery underscores the need for measures to better support this population.'
The National Park Service has been monitoring the cougar population in the Santa Monica Mountains for nearly 20 years, but this marks the first time defects linked with inbreeding depression have been observed.
Such deformities, which occur when a lack of genetic diversity starts to impact survival or reproduction, have previously been seen in mountain lions in Florida.
P-81 sedated and collared. At least two other mountain lions have been observed with kinked tails on remote cameras in the region
Biologists encountered a juvenile male cougar, designated P-81, with an L-shaped tail and only one descended testicle. Such deformities are signs of low genetic diversity and possible inbreeding, and a threat to the species' survival
Without serious intervention, Los Angeles's cougar population has a 99.7 percent chance of going extinct in the next 50 years, according to biologists at UCLA.
Some estimates put it at closer to 15 years.
In March, Sikich and other researchers encountered a juvenile male cougar in the western Santa Monica Mountains, just outside the city.
Estimated to be about one-and-a-half-years old, the cat, designated P-81, was captured, sedated and collared.
He had a kinked tail, where the end was shaped like the letter 'L,' and only one descended testicle.
Since then two more cougars with kinked tails have been spotted on remote cameras in the area.
Scientists say it's possible the three are related, even siblings.
While California mountain lions aren't classified as endangered, the genetic time bomb they carry could mean their days are numbered.
Scientists tracking the animals found they are being trapping in the mountains by busy highways.
A cougar cub in the Santa Monica Mountains. Conservationists have devised a 'wildlife overpass' that will allow cougars and other animals to connect to other populations to the north, greatly increasing their genetic diversity and access to food and shelter
According to Seth Riley, wildlife branch chief for