A young mountain lion hit and killed by a car on Highway 1 near Cuesta College in October offered students a rare learning opportunity in anatomy and is now on display in the form of a skeleton in the college’s biology lab.
The skeleton, assembled in the pose of a cat ready to pounce, will be displayed so that it is facing off against the skeleton of a jaguar in the biology lab.
Biology professor Ron Ruppert and 12 students who participated in various stages of the 10-week extracurricular project completed the reassembling of the animal’s bones in mid-January. The mountain lion skeleton is the first created at the community college, whose mascot is a cougar.
“We learned a lot about this animal from dissecting it and assembling its bones,” Ruppert said. “This was a really fascinating anatomy lesson.”
Other skeletons pieced together by Ruppert and students over the years include an elephant seal, sea otter, American beaver, brown pelican, turkey and black bear. Ruppert has taught at Cuesta College since 1978.
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The longtime teacher said mountain lions have been spotted on and around campus in recent years, but they are typically reclusive animals. Also, sometimes people confuse them with bobcats and misreport sightings.
This was a really fascinating anatomy lesson.
Ron Ruppert, Cuesta College biology professor
Ruppert and several other Cuesta employees drove past the animal after it had been struck by a car 3 miles north of the campus along Highway 1 about a week before Halloween.
“When I drove past, I thought it was a deer,” Ruppert said. “I didn’t need a deer for our collection, so I didn’t think much of it.”
Later, when his phone became flooded with messages that it was a mountain lion, he went back to retrieve it after teaching a biology class. But he learned the cougar had been taken to the local office of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The department later allowed him to have the animal for educational use.
After students dissected the 137-pound male mountain lion, Ruppert and his team discovered the cat had broken its left femur, likely about five months before its death. The skeleton shows a bulge in the back left leg where the bone had separated.
“It may have come down to the road because it was gimpy,” Ruppert said. “We found nothing in his stomach. It was empty. He may have been looking for roadkill.”
The Cuesta group’s autopsy showed head and spinal injuries, two broken ribs and damage to the lungs.
“Severe internal bleeding is probably what did the poor guy in,” Ruppert said. “It looked to be a rapid death with little suffering.”
The team carefully skinned the cougar, delivering the pelt to Wildlife Arts Taxidermy in Arroyo Grande for tanning before it will be returned to the Cuesta collection.
Under Ruppert’s guidance, students boiled the bones and began the process of drilling holes to connect them for display, properly aligning the ribs, legs, back and head.
You can look at it in the textbook and see a picture, but to actually feel the bone and take flesh off it, it’s really rewarding.
Delaney DeBoer, Cuesta College student
The gum recession and marks on the skull indicated a young cat, probably 2 1/2 years old, Ruppert said.
About 100 people came by to see the cat as the team worked, most participating in a contest Ruppert held to guess its weight. (One visitor guessed the 137 pounds exactly.)
Students Delaney DeBoer, Aleta Baxley and Lindsey Hamill were instrumental in the work to assemble the skeleton.
“When you get to use your scalpel, as Ron is telling you how to cut around the eyeball and the nose, it’s just a whole different ballgame,” DeBoer said. “You can look at it in the textbook and see a picture, but to actually feel the bone and take flesh off it, it’s really rewarding.”