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The Florida Panther - Facts and Conservation Efforts
The Florida Panther - On the Bridge of Extinction?
The Florida panther, (puma concolor coryi), is the state animal of Florida and is considered to be one of the most endangered mammals on earth. It has long been considered a subspecies of puma, that lives in the forests and swamps of southern Florida in the United States. There is debate as to whether the Florida panther is actually a subspecies or the same species of the puma, also known as the mountain lion, cougar and catamount. A genetic study of the cougar mitochondrial DNA suggests that the results are too close to be considered an actual subspecies. However, the puma species found in the southern areas of Florida is still commonly known as the Florida panther. Their number are growing but at a slow pace. In the 1970’s there were only known to be around 20 Florida panthers in the wild. As of 2012, their numbers have increased to somewhere between 100 to 160.
Male Florida Panther
The Florida panther is typically smaller than the cougars found in the northern regions of the US, yet larger than those of South America. The females weigh from 60 to 100 pounds and are the males weight ranges from 100 to 160 pounds. Their length ranges from 5.9 to 7.2 feet and their shoulder height from 24 to 28 inches. They have a black tip on their long tail and also on their ears. The sides of their nose is dark brown. Florida panthers do not roar. They do make various sounds such as growls, whistles, chirps, hisses, purrs and screams.
Florida Panther Close-Up
The Florida panther is mainly nocturnal, resting during the heat of the day. They are most often seen during the early morning and late evening hours. They are generally solitary animals and travel alone. They are territorial animals with the males traveling a territory of approximately 200 square miles and the females traveling only approximately 75 square miles.
Florida Panther Kittens
The Florida panther’s peak mating season is in winter and spring, however, they will mate throughout the year as the opportunity arises. Litters are generally 1 to 4 kittens, but rarely do all kittens survive. At birth, Florida panthers are spotted and have blue eyes. At about 9 to 12 months old, their spots will fade until their color is a solid tan with a creamy white underbelly and their eyes will take on a yellow hue. The kittens will stay with their mother for up to 2 years before going out on their own.
The Florida panther’s diet consists mainly of small animals such as mice, rabbits, raccoons, armadillos and waterfowl. However they will also dine on some larger animals such as white-tailed deer and wild pigs that also live in and around the Everglades. Unlike western Mountain Lions, the Florida panther is not a livestock killer and attacks on humans are unknown of.
The only natural predator of the Florida panther is the alligator. The alligator will lay, just under the water, near the shore, waiting for the panther to come close to drink or perhaps hunt for waterfowl. Alligators have enormously powerful jaws and when the alligator strikes, it will drag the panther into the water and drown it. The average life span of the Florida panther in the wild is approximately 10 years.
Burmese Python Found in the Florida Everglades
An Unusual Threat
An evasive species introduced into the Florida Everglades is causing problems for the Florida panther, it is the Burmese python. The Burmese python is a constrictor snake that is not native to southern Florida. It has been introduced there by people releasing their unwanted “pets” into the swamps and waterways. The Florida panther is probably too large to be caught and killed by this snake, but the damage to the panthers food source is a growing problem. Research shows the huge decline in the number of small mammals such as rabbits, raccoon and small waterfowl, due to the rising numbers of the Burmese python in this area. By consuming so much of the Florida panther’s natural food source, this can only lead to further decline of the endangered wild cat. This has become such a large problem that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has sponsored a hunting contest to run from mid-January 2013 to mid February 2013 in order to reduce the numbers of this invasive species of python in the Everglades.
Florida Panther Habitat Areas
Human population expansion is the largest threat to the Florida panther. Efforts are underway to try to preserve and increase the numbers of panthers in this area but the ever growing population and limitation of habitat, it is a difficult task. The recent drop in the freeze line in the state of Florida has increased the movement of citrus orchards further south, increasing the human population in that area.
A normal “breeding unit” consists of one male and two to five females. For a healthy breeding unit, it would require the panthers a range of approximately 200 square miles of habitat. A population of 160 panthers would require a habitat of around 6,000 to 10,000 square miles.
Kinked Tail of Florida Panther
At one time, the reduction of natural habitat was such a problem that the small numbers of these panthers created a “inbreeding” situation. This was determined by panthers being born with “kinked” tails, bad hearts and sperm problems. Once this problem revealed itself, eight female panthers were introduced from a closely related panther population from Texas. This has, at least temporarily, helped solve the inbreeding problem, but as their population grows and their habitat continues to decline, this can occur again.
Map of Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge
The Florida panther has been protected from legal hunting since 1958 and it was added to the “endangered list” but the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1967. It was added to Florida’s state endangered list in in 1973. In June of 1989, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge was established under authority of the Endangered Species Act. The refuge is located in the heart of the Big Cypress Basin in southern Florida. It consists of 26,400 acres and was set up to provide the optimum habitat for the endangered panther.
Florida Panther Underpass
Leading Cause of Death
The leading cause of death of the Florida panther is collisions with automobiles. In 2012, 19 panthers were killed by vehicles, while crossing the road. With population numbers of 160 or less, 19 panthers being killed in a year is a devastating number. Completed in 2011, a $1.3 million dollar wildlife crossing was created using fencing and a large culvert to “funnel” wildlife under a stretch of road on CR 846. This stretch of road had proven deadly for panthers in the past. This was Florida’s first privately funded wildlife crossing and it is hoped that it will save the lives of many panthers as well as other wildlife.
Panther Crossing Sign
Also in 2011, an organization called The Defenders of Wildlife, lead a group to improve safe passage for panthers in certain areas, such as CR 832/Keri Road, where 9 panthers have been killed since 1996. The county has since dedicated 5.25 miles of this road as a slow speed nighttime panther zone. This organization has also been instrumental in creating many new wildlife crossings as well as improving public awareness about the need for safe passage for panthers as well as other wildlife.
Just this month, March of 2013, the current Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, has proclaimed Saturday, March 16th as “Save the Florida Panther Day”.
More Resources for the Conservation of the Florida Panther
If you would like to keep up with the current population of the Florida panther, there is an awesome site called FloridaPanthernet.org Panther Pulse, where you can see updated information on new births of the panthers as well as deaths. This site records the size of the litters as well as sex and where they were born. It also records panthers deaths and the causes.
It is important to all of us to protect our endangered species of animals and I hope that this article will help bring attention to the critical endangerment of the Florida panther. There are many things we can do to help such as donating to the many organizations that are trying to save them from extinction. If you live in, or are just visiting southern Florida, keep the Florida panther in mind and slow down when driving through “panther country”.
Were you aware the Florida panther was in danger of extinction?
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© 2013 Sheila Brown