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The Florida panther has long been on the endangered list, and careful monitoring helps study their habits.
The Florida panther has long been on the endangered list, and careful monitoring helps study their habits. / news-press.com file photo

Florida panther

Puma concolor coryi
• Appearance: Primarily fawn colored coat with rusty red on back and shoulders and gray underneath. Spots and blue eyes occur in kittens up to
• Habitat/range: Found mostly south of Lake Okeechobee in preserve lands in or around Collier County. Collared male panthers have been found in Georgia.
• Feeding habits: Eats mostly deer and wild hogs, which aren’t native to Florida. Panthers are solitary, nocturnal hunters.
• Reproduction: Females can birth two to three kittens every two to three years. Kittens have spots on their coats and blue eyes.
Sources: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, floridapanthernet.org.

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There most likely would be fewer than 10 Florida panthers stalking the states forests today if it wasn’t for the Texas cougar, scientists say.

The first cougars came in 1995, when officials released eight female Texas cougars in South Florida as a way to broaden the genetic diversity of what was then a dying population.

Had those cougars not been released, a recent University of Florida report finds, the state’s official animal would likely be extinct.

“We found that the Florida population would’ve declined, on average, by about 5 percent per year,” said Madan Oli, a University of Florida professor and one of the authors of the report. “And that’s essentially telling us there was a high chance that the population would’ve eventually gone extinct.”

The report said there is a 71 percent chance that only 10 of the endangered cats would be alive in the wild today if not for the genetic infusion. The breeding project, somewhat controversial at that time, has boosted panther population across much of South Florida’s undeveloped lands.

“The ultimate situation would have been their extinction had we not taken action,” said Darrell Land, a biologist and panther team leader for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “The clock was ticking.”

Today, panther numbers hover around 150 of juvenile and breeding age. That’s more than five times the number of cats thought to be in the wild in 1995, when the Texas cougar genetic restoration project started. Some researchers estimated there were six or fewer panthers alive in Florida during the 1980s.

Panthers are powerful, literally, but also in courtrooms, where lawyers argue about big cat habitat loss and the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. Building Florida Gulf Coast University on hundreds of acres of panther habitat in the mid 1990s was fought by many conservation groups, groups that now point to the UF research paper as proof of the need for land preservation.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a doubt that it wasn’t a success,” Nancy Payton, with the Florida Wildlife Federation, said about the UF study. “Just look at the population, the health of the population.”

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Small gene pools can lead to breeding problems in most animals, and Florida panthers showed evidence of dramatic physical conditions resulting from a segmented population.

Over time, Florida panthers became known for a “cowlick,” a section of hair that grows at odd angles and a trait not found in other subspecies of cougar. Crooked tails also developed in the Florida animals, as did more serious issues in males, including sterility.

“Some males had only one or no testicles descend,” Land said.

The Texas cougar project also brought into question the validity of the Florida panther as an authentic subspecies, a scientific designation given only to a population that develops unique physical or genetic traits over a period of time. Mixing a Texas cougar with a Florida panther would produce a 50-50 mix of each animal, making it neither a cougar or a panther.

Land said historically the two populations shared genetics as the Texas cats were linked by habitat to those in south Florida. State and federal environmental agencies consider all kittens born in south Florida to be panthers.

Connect with this reporter: ChadGillisNP on twitter.

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