FLORIDA PANTHER        

Felis (or Puma) Concolor Coryi

Family: Felidae

Order: Carnivora

Range: Southern Florida

Status: Endangered

DESCRIPTION: The Florida panther is a large, slender cat, tawny above and whitish below. The tip of the tail, back of the ears and parts of the face are highlighted with dark brown or black. Sexes look alike. Kittens exhibit distinct black spots on a buffy background until they are 9 to 12 months old. Lengths and weights vary from 188 centimeters and 32 to 45 kilograms for females to 220 centimeters and 50 to 72 kilograms for males. Front pad widths of adult panthers range from 4 to 5 centimeters and 5 to 6 centimeters for females and males, respectively. It is often mistaken for the smaller bobcat (Felis rufus), whose coat is spotted and tail is much shorter.


The Florida panther is a subspecies of the North American cougar (Felis concolor) that has adapted to the subtropical environment of Florida, and is one of the most endangered mammals in the world. Characteristics believed to be typical of the subspecies include a crook at the end of the tail, a dorsal hair whorl (cowlick), and white flecking around the neck and shoulders. The Florida panther population remaining in the wild is probably between 50 and 75.

HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION: The cougar once had the broadest natural distribution of any terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere, and ranged from the Yukon to the tip of South America. After two centuries of intensive hunting and habitat loss, only isolated populations remain today. Cougars are found in many western states but, east of the Mississippi River, the only known population is in southwest Florida. A few decades ago, panthers were found throughout Florida, including the Keys; however, today they primarily occur in the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, the Big Cypress National Preserve, the Everglades National Park, and surrounding private lands, where cypress and mixed hardwood swamps are interspersed with freshwater marshes, old fields, and pine flatwoods. Panthers are found in most types of vegetation, including pine flatwoods, mixed-hardwood pine, hardwood hammock, tropical hammock, hardwood swamp, cypress swamp, mangrove swamp, freshwater marshes, and Brazilian pepper thickets. Historically, a habitat prerequisite for panthers apparently was an abundant deer population. The introduction of domestic livestock such as cattle (Bos taurus) and swine (Sus scrofa), colonization by armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus), and recent intensive agricultural practices have considerably changed environmental conditions and prey resources for this species.

The panther is considered a wilderness species, yet it is an extremely shy animal and is rarely seen in the wild. Its ability to hide and its habit of seeking out very dense cover in remote areas make finding it difficult. Biologists must often depend on signs (i.e., scats, scrapes, and tracks) rather than actual sightings to confirm its presence.

Florida panthers spend much of their time traveling their territories in search of prey and to reaffirm their presence to other panthers. Following a large kill, they often eat 4 to 5 kilograms at a feeding, after which time they typically cover the remainder with soil and vegetative debris. They feed principally on deer and wild hogs, but armadillos are readily taken if the opportunity occurs. Unlike western mountain lions, Florida panthers are not regular livestock killers, and attacks on humans are unknown.

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Florida panthers are solitary, territorial animals, and seldom range together except when mating. Annual movement patterns vary little. However, they travel more at night than during the day in the warmer months. Males are polygamous and breed with several females residing in their home ranges. Home ranges average about 550 square kilometers for males and 300 square kilometers for females. Habitat quality and prey density appear to determine female home-range size and possibly litter size. Male home ranges may reflect the density and distribution of adult females.

Peaks in breeding activities in Florida seem to occur year-round. Panthers produce from 1 to 6 young approximately every 2 years. Prenatal litter size ranges from 3 to 4, and a litter that is 6 to 12 months old contains an average of 2 kittens. Gestation lasts 92 to 94 days. The young are born in a densely vegetated thicket (e.g., saw palmetto cluster), usually weighing about 500 grams each. Kittens have been observed to remain with their mothers for 12 to 18 months. Sexual maturity is believed to be at approximately 2 years of age. Expected longevity of panthers is approximately 10 years.
 
HEALTH IS THE BIGGEST THREAT: The biggest threats to the remaining panthers, are their health and continuing loss of habitat. Florida panthers have an unusually large number of health problems. Most are related to poor habitat conditions and genetic defects.
Around the Everglades, panthers have been contaminated with mercury (at least 1 has died from mercury poisoning) by eating raccoons high in mercury, which passes through the aquatic food chain. The mercury's origin is being debated and is uncertain.
Florida panthers are also killed by cars and trucks, particularly on State Road 29 and Alligator Alley (I-75), and - although it is against the law - hunters still shoot panthers occasionally.
 
WHAT IS BEING DONE?: Plans to save the panthers focus on 3 areas of action.
 
First, additional habitat must be secured and enhanced.
 
Second, programs are under way to breed panthers in captivity for later release back in the wild.
 
Third, scientists are exploring ways to increase the genetic variability of panthers through cross-breeding with closely related subspecies.
 
The Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge was established in Collier County where research is being conducted to learn more about the panther and its habitat needs.
 
As with most conservation issues, the plight the panther goes beyond the question of whether it is worth saving this particular species. If our wilderness cannot support panthers, then many other less visible species also will perish. Let us hope that future generations will know this beautiful animal and the wilderness it symbolizes.

BASIS OF STATUS CLASSIFICATION: The decline of Florida panther numbers and distribution has been under way at least since the arrival of Europeans. The elimination process started with early settlers, who attempted to destroy panthers at every probable and actual losses of livestock, and fear. Hunting was typically done by using dogs to pursue and tree the cat, at which time it was easily shot. Given these conditions, it is not surprising that most populations were eliminated before 1900. A significant panther population was still present in southern Florida around the turn of the century, but enormous human population growth has resulted in a continuous and accelerated decline. For example, the most conspicuous habitat modification has been the construction of major highways through once-contiguous habitat. Consequently, collisions with vehicles have caused the greatest known mortality in panthers; because road kills are the easiest form of death to document.

Since the use of radio-telemetry studies in 1981, movement data have been important in developing conservation measures. Reduced night speed limits have been posted on State Road 29 and 84, and U.S. Highway 41 in areas of frequent crossings. Telemetry and road mortality data also have been used to design wildlife underpasses for the conversion of S.R. 84 (Alligator Alley) to Interstate 75. The underpasses have been utilized by panthers as well as many other game and non-game wildlife species.

Although panthers are susceptible to mortality caused by illegal shootings and highway collisions, these losses can eventually be compensated by reproduction and recruitment. Permanent losses in numbers result primarily from habitat lost to expanding urbanization and agriculture. The recent southward retreat of the state's freeze line has placed new pressures on southwestern Florida's wildlands to produce citrus. This, in addition to other intensifying agricultural practices, will undoubtedly reduce the ability of the region to support panthers. A moderate level of human disturbance seems to be tolerated as long as cover and food equirements are met.

In light of the booming human population and concomitant development in Florida, it is remarkable that a wilderness species like the panther has remained. The Florida panther was listed in 1973 as an "endangered" species under the Endangered Species Act and is protected under the Florida Panther Act of 1978. In 1976, a Panther Recovery Team appointed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepared a plan to protect the panther and assist in the implementation of its recovery. This team prepared the "Florida Panther Recovery Plan" outlining the steps needed to save the panther. This plan was thoroughly revised and updated in 1987. In order to provide advice on technical issues relating to the Florida panther the Florida Panther Technical Advisory Council was established by the state legislature in 1983. The Florida Panther Interagency Committee was set up in 1986 to coordinate the diverse research and management programs and increase communication between the many groups involved in panther research. The primary agencies involved in the Committee are the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, U.S. National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1982 the Florida panther was designated the State's official mammal.

HABITAT GUIDELINES: The Florida black bear and Florida panther have been sighted and radio tracked east of S.R. 951 in Collier County where there are tracts of forested land. There should be a need to address protection of this species when rezoning, designing new roads or road improvements east of S.R. 951.

RECOMMENDATIONS: A sense of urgency should surround activities associated with Florida panther conservation. Efforts by several government agencies have resulted in an increase in acreage set aside in public trust for panther conservation. Specifically, additions to Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and acquisition of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge have increased areas that are being managed for panthers. In order to protect panthers outside of public ownership, intensification of agriculture conversions on private lands must be re-assessed; especially, since little effort has been done to maintain panther habitat on private land. After all private lands in southwest Florida are estimated to contain more than 50 percent of the occupied range (12,960 square kilometers) of Florida panthers and habitat quality on private lands is higher than habitat quality on public lands, due to soil productivity and drainage characteristics. As a result, conservation programs that maintain suitable habitat conditions on both public and private properties are most crucial to the survival of the Florida panther.

The Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission has identified proposed Strategic Habitat Conservation Areas for the Florida panther that, in combination with existing conservation areas, encompasses most of the radio telemetry locations and includes most of the areas field surveyed within the occupied range. Conservation of habitat within the Strategic Habitat Conservation Areas will require new initiatives along several broad fronts as well as renewed efforts in more traditional types of land acquisition and land management. Alternative protective measures include tax incentives for private landowners; purchase of conservation easements and development rights; land leasing; land-use regulations; and other techniques that secure valuable natural resources but also allow private uses of the land. The effectiveness of these different techniques can vary greatly. Land-use regulations and tax incentives, for example, are potentially short lived since both mechanisms may be undercut quickly in a changing political climate. The frequent debates surrounding wetland regulations and endangered species laws help to demonstrate the shifting nature of these protective measures. Therefore, it is recommended that the primary method applied to some of the Strategic Habitat Conservation Areas should be acquisition of conservation easements and land-use agreements.

Conservation of panther habitat within the Strategic Habitat Conservation Areas is not only critical to maintaining the south Florida panther population it will also help to protect many

other rare species, such as Florida black bear, Florida sandhill crane and Big Cypress fox squirrel, which lack adequate habitat bases in current conservation areas.

Studies should continue to determine the effects of various human activities on panthers and their prey, and to ensure that management decisions are made in the best interest of the panther. In addition, potential competition for food with other carnivores (bobcats and foxes) should be investigated. Radiotelemetry studies should emphasize kitten survival and mortality, home-range establishment and dispersal patterns by juveniles, and social interactions among adults. This information can provide important insights into population status and trends.

Investigations should continue to outline genetic characteristics of Florida panthers and to make recommendations for genetically based population management. Dynamics of feline diseases and lifecycles of pathogenic parasites need continuing study to develop treatments or management strategies for individuals or populations when appropriate.

Captive breeding should concentrate on securing potential release sites for captive-reared animals. Site suitability should be evaluated according to the success of released radio-instructed western cougars.

The threats facing Florida panthers require quick and aggressive actions if panthers are to be saved from extinction. Broad public support is needed to carry out the actions essential to the panther's survival.

REFERENCES:

Maehr, D.S. 1992. Florida Panther. Pp. 176-189. In Rare and Endangered Biota of Florida.

Volume I. Mammals. (S.R. Humphrey ed.) University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL.