updated 1/18/2004 12:53:39 PM ET 2004-01-18T17:53:39

A three-year study that tracked 15 mountain lions in the hills east of San Diego found they are much closer to humans than previously thought.

“You can be very close to a lion and not know it,” said Walter Boyce, a professor who directed the study by the University of California, Davis Wildlife Health Center.

Scientists anesthetized the mountain lions and collared them with radios to follow their movements, particularly their contact with people at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and the surrounding area.

The study, which ended Dec. 31 — a week before a mountain lion killed a California cyclist and mauled another near Los Angeles — found that the big cats typically conceal themselves during the day in dense vegetation about 100 to 300 meters from a trail and move closer in the afternoon. They begin hunting about dusk and continue looking for food into early dawn.

Humans are most at risk during the period when cougars are hunting, Boyce said.

The study’s conclusions, however, do not fit with the time of day when the mountain lion attacked and killed Mark Reynolds, 35, at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in Orange County.

Officials believe that Reynolds was attacked about noon as he fixed a broken chain on his mountain bike and that the same mountain lion later attacked cyclist Anne Hjelle, 30, who was released Friday from a hospital.

Despite the recent attacks, the study done for the state Department of Parks and Recreation confirmed that encounters between mountain lions and people are rare. Before the maulings of Reynolds and Hjelle, there had been about a dozen recorded attacks on humans in California since 1890, resulting in five deaths.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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