The mountain lion that met an untimely death on a Connecticut highway last month had walked 1,500 miles from South Dakota, environmental officials say -- an incredible journey tracked through DNA samples collected in the Midwest over the last two years.
The 140-pound male cougar, whose age is estimated at between 2 and 5 years, almost certainly left its native habitat to look for mates but went in the wrong direction, according to Adrian Wydeven, mammal ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "He was looking for love in all the wrong places," he said.
The mountain lion was struck by an SUV on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford, Conn., on June 11. The driver was unhurt, but the cougar died at the scene.
Experts initially believed it had been released or escaped from captivity, given that no mountain lion had been sighted in the state in more than 100 years.
But Daniel Esty, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said in a statement Tuesday that genetic tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service Wildlife Genetics Laboratory showed that the animal had travelled from the Black Hills of South Dakota . DNA samples of scat (droppings), blood and hair -- taken at one site in Minnesota and three sites in Wisconsin in 2009 and 2010 of a mountain lion whose movements were tracked in those states -- confirmed the findings.
"The DNA and tissue was an exact match," said Dennis Shain, spokesman for the Connecticut DEEP. He said the tests also confirm the animal's origin. "It was a match for the species of mountain lion that lives in the Black Hills region. They have a unique genetic code and they're not known to breed elsewhere."
The cougar was not neutered or declawed — more evidence that it was a wild creature — and had no implanted microchips. Porcupine quills were found under its skin -- another sign of its having lived in the wild.
Shain said the lion was probably the same creature that was seen at the Brunswick School in the wealthy Connecticut suburb of Greenwich earlier in June. Tests have established a link, but it is not definitive.
Biologists believe the creature wandered through Ontario and New York State before arriving in Connecticut. Normally, mountain lions only travel 100 miles or so looking for mates, and it's not clear why this cougar took such an epic journey.
Male cougars, who normally have two or three mates, have to disperse from their birth home to mate because adult males are territorial, Wydeven said, and don't let another adult male enter. "If they're not finding another population of cougars, they're going to keep moving."
He said the Connecticut cougar made its way feasting on elks and deer — it was captured on a trail camera in Wisconsin in December 2009 feeding on a deer carcass.
Four male cougars have been seen in Wisconsin in the last two years, Wydeven said, and in South Dakota, the population has soared to 250 in recent years. "They're considered to be nearly at saturation levels in the Black Hills," he said.
Shain hastened to add that mountain lions are not establishing a colony in the Nutmeg State.
"We believe this was a unique occurrence. There are no mountain lions in our wooded areas that are breeding and living here."
The cougar's corpse is currently in a freezer, he said. It may be preserved and displayed in a museum if officials decide that is feasible, Shain said.