The Florida Panther
The Florida Panther is part of the Puma subspecies and lives in Florida. The Panther is between 6 and 7 feet long, weighs between 120 and 160 pounds, and measures 26 inches in height. They have orange-yellow-brown fur and a grey belly. In the wild, their lifespan can exceed 10 years. (Florida Panther Recovery Team, 2008)
Photograph of a Florida Panther by Mark Conlin, Tallahassee Natural History Museum
Panthers in Florida are now confined to just 5% of the historical surface area they once populated. Their current conservation status is endangered, and the species is classified as being 6c, which means its degree of threat is high, and recovery potential low. (Florida Panther Recovery Team, 2008)
The Florida Panther preys on wild hogs, white-tailed deer, racoons, armadillos, rabbits, as well as livestock and pets. Panthers predominantly hunt at night.
In order to meet the social, reproductive, and energetic demands, the Panther needs vast contiguous terrains where it can stalk prey to gain a hunting advantage. Data gathered from GPS radiocollars shows that Panthers carry out most nocturnal activities in wetland forests, followed by upland forests, marsh shrubs, and prairie grasslands. (Land et al., 2008)
Most breeding activity takes place in fall and spring. Male Panthers are polygynous, so their breeding location is also home to several female Panthers. Females can start breeding at just 18 months of age. Unfortunately, infant mortality is quite high as more than half of offspring die before reaching 6 months. The survival rate between ages 6 and 12 months increases to 90%. (South Florida Ecological Services Field Office, 1999)
The current population is estimated to be around 80. This is a very fragile number, as more than 30 panthers have been killed in vehicle collisions alone since 2000. The remaining panthers were also said to be parasite-infested and old. When the population was between 30 and 50 in 1990, geneticists claimed that inbreeding was not a viable solution for the survival of the species, so the US Fish & Wildlife Service released Texas cougars, as introgression was a necessary step to increase genetic diversity and keep the Panther from becoming extinct. (Gross, 2005)
Threats from Traits
The Panther’s low reproductive fitness (sperm count & quality) and inbreeding contributes to the low off-spring survival rate. (Comiskey et al., 2002) Consequently, mutations passed to offspring result in unfavorable genotypes that make it more vulnerable. Additionally, their nocturnal lifestyle and appearance results in a higher risk of being overseen by human drivers on the highway.
Significance in Ecosystem
Panthers rest in denning sites that consist of close-to-ground vegetation such as fern beds, oak scrub, and sawgrass. They are very territorial and protective of their habitat which can reach 200 square miles, hence the reason why the Panther plays an important role in maintaining and preserving the forest ecosystem. (Comiskey et al., 2002) Panthers prey on feral hogs and racoons. Hogs are highly prolific breeders and carry diseases which affect livestock and wildlife. Racoons are also avid disease carriers, so by consuming those species, the Florida Panther controls the populations of disease and illness-spreading species.
Survival of the Species
The goal of the recovery plan is to bring the Florida Panther from an endangered back to a threatened state. The plan involves the following initiatives:
- Restoring and expanding the Panther population by improving the quality and the size and its habitat in South Florida.
- Relocating part of the population to south-central Florida, which requires public acceptance, which will be sought through education about the panther’s behavior and conservation status.
- Identifying reintroduction sites by using technology and models and creating a selection process that determines which Panthers will move where.
- Educating, spreading awareness, and developing a media plan to get empathy from the public, acceptance to preserve the species, and asking for contribution.
Major stakeholders of this plan include all of the South Florida counties, the Florida Division of Forestry, the Florida Department of Transportation, the Florida Highway Patrol, City and County agencies, Public and Private Universities, the Private Industry and landowners, and the US Department of Agriculture. The cost of carrying out this recovery plan is estimated to be above $17.5 million over 5 years. The cost includes researchers, scientists, transportation of the animals, monitoring the viability of the species, maintenance of habitats, as well as repurchasing costs associated with buying back, or keeping land. (Florida Panther Recovery Team, 2008; Frakes et al., 2015)
Photograph of a tranquilized panther that is being prepared for a series of tests, by David Albers
I believe the Florida Panther is a high-priority species, because it plays an important role in maintaining a balanced and healthy ecosystem. However, given that they require large areas of land and the value of land increases year over year, I can see that the cost of preserving the species will become increasingly expensive. While some countries with fewer endangered species have the resources to save all, most must prioritize species that are at higher risk of extinction. I believe the cost of saving the Florida Panther is worthwhile, because the United States has the resources; and because one can always develop land in the future, but one cannot bring back an extinct species.
The survival of the Panther in Florida depends on funding and how willing the public is to share the environment and make sacrifices in their behavior. At the current rate of urbanization and deforestation, the Panthers will be unable to survive much longer. Therefore, the education and awareness initiatives are vital. The lack of genetic variation and high historic rate of inbreeding severely reduce the rate of reproduction and increase mortality, according to the extinction vortex. Therefore, the species must be reintroduced in more locations to increase genetic diversity in order to increase the number of healthy offspring that age enough to reproduce themselves.
Comiskey, E. J., Bass, O. L., Gross, L. J., McBridge, R. T., & Salinas, R. (2002). Panthers and Forests in South Florida: an Ecological Perspective. Conservation Ecology. https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol6/iss1/art18/.
Florida Panther Recovery Team. (2008, November 1). Florida Panther Recovery Plan. Environmental Conservation Online System. https://ecos.fws.gov/docs/recovery_plan/081218.pdf.
Frakes, R. A., Belden, R. C., Wood, B. E., & James, F. E. (2015, July 29). Landscape Analysis of Adult Florida Panther Habitat. PLOS ONE. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0133044.
Gross, L. (2005, August 23). Why not the best? How science failed the Florida panther. PLoS Biology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1188244/.
Land, E. D., Shindle, D. B., Kawula, R. J., Benson, J. F., Lotz, M. A., & Onorato, D. P. (2008, April 1). Florida Panther Habitat Selection Analysis of Concurrent GPS and VHF Telemetry Data. Journal of Wildlife Management. http://users.clas.ufl.edu/mbinford/GEOXXXX_Biogeography/Literature_reports_by_students/Report_5/Pritchard_Article5.pdf.
South Florida Ecological Services Field Office. (1999, May). Florida Panther. https://www.fws.gov/VeroBeach/MSRPPDFs/FloridaPanther.pdf.