The Endangered Florida Panther

Florida Panther
Florida Panther, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wikimedia Commons

The Florida panther, a big solitary cat, has much in common with its small domestic feline relatives.

Also known as cougar or puma, the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) is a subspecies of mountain lion. Florida panthers are various shades of tan or reddish-brown with lighter fur on their undersides. The backs of their ears, muzzles, and tail tips are shaded with darker fur, and cubs have dark spots for protective camouflage.

So-called black panthers are actually leopards or jaguars with melanistic colouration. Big black cats are usually born alongside normally coloured littermates, and their coats are actually a very dark brown colour with spots that can be seen in bright sunlight. There is no documented evidence of black Florida panthers.

Florida Panther Size

Male panthers range from about 106-148 pounds and females 65-100. Males measure approximately 6.6 feet from nose to tail tip (though many are as long as 8 feet), and are about 2.6 feet in height from paw pads to shoulders. Females are around 6 feet long and stand about 2.2 feet high.

Florida Panther Diet

Florida panthers eat wild pigs, deer, rabbits, raccoons, armadillos, birds, squirrels, rats, and small alligators. Adult panthers must consume between 35 and 50 deer-sized animals each year, and nursing females may require twice as much prey.

Florida Panther Habitat

Florida panthers traditionally lived throughout the Southeastern United States but are now isolated in the South Florida area, though some males roam as far as North Florida. Overall, their range has diminished to about 5% of its historical span.

Panthers prefer dry forest but may also be found in watery areas. Slash pine with saw palmetto understory is a favoured habitat, as it provides good cover for stalking prey and raising young.

Panther Behaviour and Abilities

Florida panthers are mostly nocturnal and tend to be most active between dusk and dawn, when they do the majority of their hunting. A panther can leap more than 15 feet and run up to 35 miles per hour. These abilities, combined with superior senses and particularly excellent night vision, give the panther a hunting advantage.

The Florida panther stalks and ambushes its prey, delivering a killing bite to the back of the neck that severs the spinal cord, or a suffocating bite to the throat when dealing with larger prey. Small animals may be dispatched with a bite to the skull. The panther uses its whiskers (which act as sensors for air currents created by movement) to keep track of the prey’s position and thwart escape attempts.

Male Florida panthers defend a home range of approximately 200 square miles, and females have a territory of around 75 square miles. A female’s range usually overlaps that of her mother, and a male’s territory usually overlaps that of several females. Panthers live alone, with the exception of females raising cubs.

Florida panthers can’t roar, but they purr much like domestic cats. This purring may signal contentment, but injured or ill cats may also purr to reduce pain and speed the healing process. Other panther vocalizations include chirping, whistling, mewing, hissing, growling, and screaming (caterwauling).

As with domestic cats, the primary mode of communication among Florida panthers is via chemical and visual messages. These may be left by urinating in conspicuous places, leaving unburied droppings, and rubbing against or scratching objects to imbue them with the individual’s unique scent (like domestic cats, panthers have scent glands in their paws and cheeks).

Shy and elusive, Florida panthers are difficult to spot as they tend to be frightened of people. There have been no documented cases of Florida panthers attacking humans.

Florida Panther Reproduction

Panthers reach sexual maturity between 1.5 and 3 years of age, with females maturing earlier than males. Pregnancy in female panthers lasts 90-95 days, usually resulting in 1-4 cubs, which live with their mother for as long as 2 years (though they are weaned between 9 and 12 months of age).

Females usually raise their cubs in dens situated within dense foliage, and have a litter every couple of years. Most kittens are born during the spring and early summer months (March through June), but panthers are capable of producing litters at any time of the year.

Male panthers can find fertile females with the help of a specialized organ in the roof of the mouth called the vomeronasal organ. A panther (or domestic cat) that appears to be grimacing or sneering is actually using the vomeronasal organ, usually to detect the reproductive state of nearby females through chemicals in their urine (this “grimace” is called the Flehmen response). The vomeronasal organ may have other uses as well, because females also engage in the Flehmen response, and domestic cats may grimace when encountering catnip and other interesting scents.

Florida Panther Health and Longevity

Wild Florida panthers typically live 10-12 years or longer, assuming they survive into adulthood. Panther cub mortality is high, at 50%-70%. Habitat loss and the resulting population decline, which has led to inbreeding, have had adverse effects on the health of Florida panthers.

Why Florida Panthers Are Endangered

Florida’s panthers are critically endangered due to human activities. There are only about 80 Florida panthers left in the wild.

The Florida panther (also known as cougar, puma, or mountain lion) was once hunted to near extinction.

By the 1980s, the Florida panther population had dwindled to just 30-50 individuals. In recent years the subspecies has rebounded slightly, with an estimated 70-100 wild panthers in total, a small proportion of which are breeding females. However, the Florida panther is still among the most rare animals in the United States.

Today, some of the biggest threats facing the remaining Florida panthers are the loss and fragmentation of their habitat, disease, and poisoning.

Threats to the Florida Panther’s Survival

The Florida panther’s historic range, which spanned a large portion of the Southeastern United States, has shrunk to just 5% of its original area. As a result, remaining populations of wild panthers are often separated from one another, increasing the risk of inbreeding, which in turn increases the likelihood of genetic defects and infertility. Also, many panthers are hit by cars when attempting to cross the roads that divide their territories.

An additional problem associated with shrinking habitat is that young male panthers are forced into close proximity with one another. Male panthers require relatively large territories – about 200 square miles – and so young males are more likely to injure or kill one another in territorial disputes when suitable habitat is scarce.

Panthers are also susceptible to diseases afflicting domestic cats and dogs such as parvovirus, feline HIV, rabies, and feline leukemia, and inbreeding may have weakened their immune systems, making them even more vulnerable. Thus, free-roaming domestic and feral cats and dogs present a further threat to the Florida panther’s continued existence.

In addition, some Florida panthers have succumbed to mercury poisoning from factories, hazardous waste sites, and coal-fired power plants. This mercury, released into the air, is carried down into water and land by rain and becomes part of the ecosystem. Panthers may be poisoned when they prey on alligators and raccoons that have accumulated mercury through eating fish.

Efforts to Save the Florida Panther from Extinction

The only way to save the Florida panther is to protect its South Florida habitat, reintroduce the subspecies to additional areas within its former habitat range, and broaden the current gene pool. Thus far there have been a number of habitat conservation initiatives implemented, and fences, underpasses, and wildlife crossing signs have also helped to reduce automobile-related deaths. In addition, about one-third of all Florida panthers are now equipped with radio collars for monitoring purposes.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began introducing Texas cougars to the Florida panther population in 1995 to increase the overall breeding stock. The Texas cougar (Puma concolor stanleyana), though closely related to the Florida panther, is a heavier cat that differs slightly in its skull shape, as well as the colour and texture of its fur. These two subspecies historically interbred, and their offspring are considered Florida panthers and thus eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

What to Do When Encountering a Florida Panther

Although there have been no documented cases of Florida panthers attacking humans, caution is warranted. Upon encountering a Florida panther:

    • Attempt to stay calm and don’t show any fear.
    • Make lots of noise and back away while continuing to face the animal.
    • Try to look larger by waving arms and opening jackets, and avoid actions that give the appearance of reduced size, such as bending over or crouching down.
    • Ensure that the panther has an escape route and isn’t cornered.

The Florida panther is quite frightened of people and is more likely to run away than threaten. Even western panthers, which have occasionally attacked people, have often been successfully driven away by those who fought back, so in the extremely unlikely event that a Florida panther attacks, fighting back aggressively is recommended.

Panther sightings should be reported, particularly if the animal behaves in a threatening manner or appears to be injured or ill. Report sightings to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (phone: 1-888-404-3922). Dead panthers should also be reported, as keeping track of such deaths and their causes is critical to ensuring the survival of the subspecies.

References:

    • Defenders of Wildlife. (2009). “Environmental Toxins That Harm Florida Panthers.” Defenders.org.
    • Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Panther Safety Tips.” MyFWC.com.
    • National Wildlife Federation. (2009). “Florida Panther and the Endangered Species Act.” NWF.org.
    • Roth, J. (2006). “Florida Panther.” EParks.org.
    • SeaWorld/Busch Gardens Animal Bytes. (2009). “Florida Panther.” Seaworld.org.
    • The Florida Panther Society. (2007). “Frequently Asked Questions” and “Panther Info.” PantherSociety.org.

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