The Florida panther is a North American cougar P. c. couguar population. In South Florida, it lives in pinelands, hardwood hammocks, and mixed swamp forests.
Males can weigh up to 160 lb (73 kg) and live within a range that includes the Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Picayune Strand State Forest, rural communities of Collier County, Florida including Golden Gate Estates, Hendry County, Florida, Lee County, Florida, Miami-Dade County, Florida, and Monroe County, Florida. This population, the only unequivocal cougar representative in the eastern United States, currently occupies 5% of its historic range. In the 1970s, an estimated 20 Florida panthers remained in the wild, but their numbers had increased to an estimated 230 by 2017.
In 1982, the Florida panther was chosen as the Florida state animal.
It was formerly classified as a distinct puma subspecies (Puma concolor coryi).
Florida panthers are spotted at birth and typically have blue eyes. As the panther grows, the spots fade and the coat becomes completely tan, while the eyes typically take on a yellow hue. The panther's underbelly is a creamy white, and it has black tips on the tail and ears. Florida panthers lack the ability to roar, and instead make distinct sounds that include whistles, chirps, growls, hisses, and purrs. Florida panthers are midsized for the species, being smaller than cougars from Northern and Southern climes, but larger than cougars from the neotropics. Adult female Florida panthers weigh 29–45.5 kg (64–100 lb), whereas the larger males weigh 45.5–72 kg (100–159 lb). Total length is from 1.8 to 2.2 m (5.9 to 7.2 ft) and shoulder height is 60–70 cm (24–28 in). Male panthers, on average, are 9.4% longer and 33.2% heavier than females because males grow at a faster rate than females and for a longer time.
The Florida panther has long been considered a unique subspecies of cougar, under the trinomial Puma concolor coryi (Felis concolor coryi in older listings), one of 32 subspecies once recognized. The Florida panther has been protected from legal hunting since 1958, and in 1967, it was listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; it was added to the state's endangered species list in 1973.
A genetic study of cougar mitochondrial DNA has reported that many of the supposed subspecies are too similar to be recognized as distinct, suggesting a reclassification of the Florida panther and numerous other subspecies into a single North American cougar (Puma concolor couguar). Following the research, the canonical Mammal Species of the World (3rd edition) ceased to recognize the Florida panther as a unique subspecies, collapsing it and others into the North American cougar.
Despite these findings, it is still listed as subspecies Puma concolor coryi in research works, including those directly concerned with its conservation. Responding to the research that suggested removing its subspecies status, the Florida Panther Recovery Team noted in 2007, "the degree to which the scientific community has accepted the results of Culver et al. and the proposed change in taxonomy is not resolved at this time."
In 2017, the Cat Classification Taskforce of the Cat Specialist Group revised the taxonomy of cats, and now recognises all populations of the cougar in North America as P. c. couguar.
The Florida panther is a large carnivore whose diet consists both of small animals, such as hares, mice, and waterfowl, and larger prey such as storks, white-tailed deer, feral pigs, and American alligators. The Florida panther is an opportunistic hunter and has been known to prey on livestock and domesticated animals, including cattle, goats, horses, pigs, sheep, dogs, and cats. When hunting, panthers shift their hunting environment based on where the prey base is. Female panthers frequently shift both their home range and movement behavior due to their reproductive rates.
Panther kittens are born in dens created by their mothers, often in dense scrub. The dens are chosen based on a variety of factors, including prey availability, and have been observed in a range of habitats. Kittens will spend the first 6–8 weeks of life in those dens, dependent on their mother. In the first 2–3 weeks, the mother spends most of her time nursing the kittens; after this period, she spends more time away from the den, to wean the kittens and to hunt prey to bring to the den. Once they are old enough to leave the den, they hunt in the company of their mother. Male panthers are not encountered frequently during this time, as female and male panthers generally avoid each other outside of breeding. Kittens are usually 2 months old when they begin hunting with their mothers, and 2 years old when they begin to hunt and live on their own.
The Florida panther has a natural predator, the American alligator. Humans also threaten it through poaching and wildlife control measures. Besides predation, the biggest threat to their survival is human encroachment. Historical persecution reduced this wide-ranging, large carnivore to a small area of south Florida. This created a tiny, isolated population that became inbred (revealed by kinked tails and heart and sperm problems).
The two highest causes of mortality for individual Florida panthers are automobile collisions and territorial aggression between panthers. When these incidents injure the panthers, federal and Florida wildlife officials take them to White Oak Conservation in Yulee, Florida, for recovery and rehabilitation until they are well enough to be reintroduced. Additionally, White Oak raises orphaned kittens and has done so for 12 individuals. Most recently, an orphaned brother and sister were brought to the center at 5 months old in 2011 after their mother was found dead in Collier County, Florida. After being raised, the male and female were released in early 2013 to the Rotenberger Wildlife Management Area and Collier County, respectively.
Primary threats to the population as a whole include habitat loss, habitat degradation, and habitat fragmentation. Southern Florida is a fast-developing area and certain developments such as Ave Maria near Naples, are controversial for their location in prime panther habitat. Fragmentation by major roads has severely segmented the sexes of the Florida panther, as well. In a study done between 1981 and 2004, most panthers involved in car collisions were found to be male. However, females are much more reluctant to cross roads. Therefore, roads separate habitat, and adult panthers.
Development and the Caloosahatchee River are major barriers to natural population expansion. While young males wander over extremely large areas in search of an available territory, females occupy home ranges close to their mothers. For this reason, panthers are poor colonizers and expand their range slowly despite occurrences of males far away from the core population.
Antigen analysis on select Florida panther populations has shown evidence of feline immunodeficiency virus and puma lentivirus among certain individuals. The presence of these viruses is likely related to mating behaviors and territory sympatry. Although, since Florida panthers have lower levels of the antibodies produced in response to FIV, consistently positive results for the presence of infection is difficult to find.
In the 2002–2003 capture season, feline leukemia virus was first observed in two panthers. Further analysis determined an increase in FeLV-positive panthers from January 1990 to April 2007. The virus is lethal, and its presence has resulted in efforts to inoculate the population. While no new cases have been reported since July 2004, the virus does have potential for reintroduction.
Exposure to a variety of chemical compounds in the environment has caused reproductive impairment to Florida panthers. Tests show that the differences between males and females in estradiol levels are insignificant, which suggests that males have been feminized due to chemical exposure. Feminized males are much less likely to reproduce, which represents a significant threat to a subspecies that already has a low population count and a high level of inbreeding. Chemical compounds that have created abnormalities in Florida panther reproduction include herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides such as benomyl, carbendazim, chlordecone, methoxychlor, methylmercury, fenarimol, and TCDD.
The Florida panther has low genetic diversity due to a variety of environmental and genetic factors. Factors that include habitat destruction contributed to the formation of a distinct and isolated subspecies of puma in the Florida panther. Isolation was followed by a gradual decline in the population size that increased the likelihood of inbreeding depression. The lower genetic diversity and higher rates of inbreeding led to the increased expression of deleterious traits in the populations, resulting in lower overall fitness of the Florida panther population. This also lowers the adaptive capacity of the population and increases the likelihood of genetic defects such as cryptorchidism and other complications to the heart and immune system.
Specifically concerning the Florida panther, one of the morphological consequences of inbreeding was a high frequency of cowlicks and kinked tails. The frequency of exhibiting a cowlick in a Florida panther population was 94% compared to other pumas at 9%, while the frequency of a kinked tail was 88% as opposed to 27% for other puma subspecies. To increase genetic diversity of the Florida panther, eight Texas pumas were introduced to the Florida population to hopefully promote the survival of the native population. The results indicated that the survival rates of hybrid kittens were three times higher than those of purebred pumas. Due to the successes of this restoration effort, the genetic depletion of the Florida panther population is now not as much of a problem as it used to be, but ought to be monitored since the population is still in a fragile state.
Florida panthers live in home ranges between 190 and 500 km2. Within these ranges are many roads and human constructions, which are regularly traveled on by Florida panthers and can result in their death by vehicular collision. Efforts to reduce collisions with the Florida panther include nighttime speed reduction zones, special roadsides, headlight reflectors, and rumble strips. Another method of reducing collisions is the creation of wildlife corridors. Because wildlife corridors emulate the natural environment, animals are more likely to cross through a corridor rather than a road because a corridor provides more cover for prey and predators, and is safer to cross than a road.
It was formerly considered critically endangered by the IUCN, but it has not been listed since 2008. Recovery efforts are currently underway in Florida to conserve the state's remaining population of native panthers. This is a difficult task, as the panther requires contiguous areas of habitat – each breeding unit, consisting of one male and two to five females, requires about 200 square miles (500 km2) of habitat. This animal is considered to be a conservational flagship because it is a major contributor to the keystone ecological and evolutionary processes in their environment.
A population of 240 panthers would require 8,000–12,000 square miles (21,000–31,000 km2) of habitat and sufficient genetic diversity to avoid inbreeding as a result of small population size. However, a study in 2006 estimated that about 3,800 square miles (9,800 km2) were free for the panthers. The introduction of eight female cougars from a closely related Texas population has apparently been successful in mitigating inbreeding problems. One objective to panther recovery is establishing two additional populations within historic range, a goal that has been politically difficult.
The conservation of Florida panther habitats is especially important because they rely on the protection of the forest, specifically hardwood hammock, cypress swamp, pineland, and hardwood swamp, for their survival. Conservations strategies for Florida panthers tend to focus on their preferred morning habitats. However, GPS tracking has determined that habitat selection for panthers varies by time of day for all observed individuals, regardless of size or gender. They move from wetlands during the daytime, to prairie grasslands at night. The implications of these findings suggest that conservation efforts be focused on the full range of habitats used by Florida panther populations. Female panthers with cubs build dens for their litters in an equally wide variety of habitats, favoring dense scrub, but also using grassland and marshland.
The Florida panther has been at the center of a controversy over the science used to manage the species. Strong disagreement has occurred between scientists about the location and nature of critical habitat. This, in turn, is linked to a dispute over management which involves property developers and environmental organizations. Recovery agencies appointed a panel of four experts, the Florida Panther Scientific Review Team (SRT), to evaluate the soundness of the body of work used to guide panther recovery. The SRT identified serious problems in panther literature, including poor citations and misrepresentation of data to support unsound conclusions.
A Data Quality Act (DQA) complaint brought by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Andrew Eller, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), was successful in demonstrating that agencies continued to use incorrect information after it had been clearly identified as such. As a result of the DQA ruling, USFWS admitted errors in the science the agency was using and subsequently reinstated Eller, who had been fired by USFWS after filing the DQA complaint. In two white papers, environmental groups contended that habitat development was permitted that should not have been, and documented the link between incorrect data and financial conflicts of interest. In January 2006, USFWS released a new draft Florida Panther Recovery Plan for public review.
Species: P. concolor
Subspecies: P. c. couguar
Trinomial name: Puma concolor couguar
Formerly P. c. coryi (Bangs, 1899)