APTOS -- Mountain lions are beautiful and elusive and often inspire fear. But when residents of Redwood Drive in Aptos spotted a lion wandering through their neighborhood in August, they were more curious than worried.

Sandy Lydon, president of the Redwood Drive Community Emergency Response Team and historian emeritus at Cabrillo College, invited UC Santa Cruz scientist and Bay Area Puma Project lead researcher Chris Wilmers to give a presentation to the neighborhood. Lydon wanted to shine some light on the area's newest celebrity.

"We share the neighborhood with them," he said. "And I don't think people know very much about them." Four sightings were reported to Lydon, who sent e-mails alerting residents to the animal's presence. Kevin Wallace reported the first sighting on the morning of Aug. 29.

"It stopped in the middle of our driveway and stood there for a long time," he said. "It was beautiful, an amazing animal, very strong-looking. I would love to see it again." On Monday, Wilmers spoke to about 50 people at the Monte Toyon campground in Aptos about the Puma Project and answered questions about mountain lion behavior, their hunting habits and how to keep pets safe.

"I'm not so worried about me, but more worried for my dog," said Jose Mendoza. "She's a little Dachshund."

Wilmers suggested keeping pets inside overnight and making sure livestock are kept in lion-proof pens.

"Goats are the real temptation for lions," he said. "The main reason lions are shot or get in trouble is that they get into someone's goats. Then you have a problem lion, and the lion will often be depredated."

Mountains lions are notoriously good jumpers and climbers, and are often found in trees. Wilmers said even a ten-foot fence won't necessarily keep a lion out and that pens need lion-proof roofs to be secure.

"These guys are like ninjas," Wilmers said.

He also suggested that safety could be found in numbers, especially during peak lion hours: overnight and around dusk and dawn.

"It was interesting to hear that if you're walking with your dog in the evening, you should have at least two dogs or two people," said Helen Jackson Jones.

Wilmers said it seems unlikely that mountain lions regard humans as food.

"If they looked at us as prey, there would be a lot more deaths. There are a lot of lions out there," he said. "But they're almost never killing humans."

The Bay Area Puma Project was launched in 2008 and follows mountain lions in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Researchers have captured and collared 17 animals so far. Scientists use high-tech collars to track an animal's position, direction and activity. Readings from the collar help scientists understand what the animals are doing -- like walking, running, feeding and resting -- and where it is, to within a few meters, according to Wilmers.

"You can get 10 to 20 location readings in a day," Wilmers said.

Wilmers said such high-resolution behavioral data can be used to assess the effects of things like habitat fragmentation on mountain lion populations. Fragmentation occurs when urban developments isolate natural spaces and create barriers to animal movement.

One major barrier is Highway 17, which bisects the Santa Cruz mountains. It appears to be a no-cross zone, or at least attempts to cross the highway are unsuccessful.

"We've picked up three pumas this year from Highway 17," Wilmers said. "Most of them were right near the spillway at the Lexington dam."

Wilmers showed a map of the Santa Cruz Mountains depicting the tracked animals' locations, and there were none that crossed Highway 17. Other areas were virtually covered with tracks, but very few animals exited the mountain range itself. According to Wilmers, the Santa Cruz Mountains are essentially an island for the mountain lion population.

"The mountains are surrounded on all sides by either ocean or concrete, with few exceptions," Wilmers said.

And though there might be anywhere from 50 to 100 mountain lions in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the long-term prognosis for an isolated population that size is not good, according to Wilmers.

"Over time, you're going to get this genetic inbreeding effect that causes a population to go extinct," Wilmers said.

He said that's happening in Florida with an isolated panther population that is accumulating detrimental genetic defects, like infertility.

"The federal government has stepped in and is spending millions of dollars a year trying to recover this population," Wilmers said.

Wilmers and his team are going to start analyzing mountain lion DNA samples to determine the degree of relatedness between the lions in the Santa Cruz Mountains, several of which live in Santa Cruz County areas like Ben Lomond, Boulder Creek, Bonny Doon and Aptos.

The map showed a plethora of bright green tracks crossing the forest of Nisene Marks.

"But that male is dead now," Wilmers said. "He got in trouble with goats."

Though there is no longer a bounty on them, it is still legal in California to shoot a mountain lion that is threatening livestock populations. From 1907 to 1963, more than 12,000 lions were killed for bounty, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation. In 1969, California reclassified the species as game mammals, but then Gov. Ronald Reagan signed a moratorium on lion sport-hunting in 1971. That moratorium held until 1986, when hunting the lions was again authorized. Finally, in 1990, the state passed legislation classifying mountain lions as a "specially protected mammal" and banned all hunting of the species.

Audience members enjoyed the presentation from Wilmers.

"It was good to get some factual information," said Dave Morton.

Lydon said it was a "nice mix of good science -- cutting-edge science -- but also useful information." The prevailing feeling among Redwood Drive residents seemed to be one of deep respect and honor for their newly-sighted neighbor.

"I think I would feel quite blessed to see one, these wonderful, large wild animals who still exist here in our neighborhood," said Jones.

Becky Steinbruner, who reported one of the neighborhood's sightings, said she feels lucky.

"I've wanted to see one of these beautiful creatures for a long, long time," she said.

More about mountain lions
Also called: Cougar, puma, catamount, panther and painter. The cat has more than 40 names.
Distribution: The Americas SIZE: Females weigh 60-140 pounds. Males, can be 8 feet long and weigh 115-200 pounds.
Territory size: Females, 20-50 square miles; males, 80-100 square miles.
Diet: Carnivores, prefer deer. They kill a deer every seven to 10 days.
Life expectancy: Eight to 13 years in the wild
Main causes of death: Cars, depredation and other mountain lions
Reproduction: Litter size is one to five cubs. Can have kittens any time of year.
Most active: They are nocturnal and active at dusk and dawn
On the net: Bay Area Puma Project: http://bapp.org Mountain Lion Foundation: www.mountainlion.org To help the Bay Area Puma Project, contact Chris Wilmers with sightings and fresh mountain lion kills at cwilmers
Bay Area Puma Project and the California Department of Fish and Game