Florida Panthers are Said to Roam North Florida

by Les Harrison

November’s frosty nights stand in stark contrast to the warmer eves of a few weeks back.  The raucous chirp of crickets has been replaced with a deafening silence, interrupted occasionally with the call of a barred owl or a coyote’s howl.

For people who enjoy camping in Wakulla County, the mosquito free environment is quite inviting.  Sitting around the campfire telling stories with the moon and stars in the clear sky above is an experience to savor.

With the fire crackling, stories invariably turn to the mysteries which inhabit the surrounding woods and swamps.  Strange sighting and weird encounters are told in graphic, if somewhat exaggerated, detail.

Hairy swamp monsters, spectral locomotives and big cats have all been the focal point of tales as the embers dim and the darkness creeps in.  In the light of day, some of the encounters are easy to reason away, but not the big cats.

There is always the chance the sighting was a Florida Panther.  Puma concolor coryi, as the Florida Panther is scientifically known, officially exist only in south Florida.

Still there are many stories from reliable sources which describe these big cats roaming the remote parts of north Florida.  Some, but not all, sighting can be explained away as bobcats which were seen in a brief flash.

Florida Panther adults have a tan coat with a distinctly lighter underbelly, and black-tipped tail and ears.  The adult males weight 100 to 175 pounds with the females weighing 65 to 100 pounds.

Large panther walking. Photo courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Stored in the UF/IFAS Photo Library.

A highly monitored population of this shy feline live in south Florida’s parks and wildlife reserves far from the densely populated coastal areas. The inaccessibility of these panther’s home range make population estimates difficult, estimates place the number of panthers at several hundred at most.

While panthers are known to have large home ranges, the development of south Florida has isolated the population on an island of wilderness.  The restrictions to the range have caused concerns about the negative effects of inbreeding in the surviving population.

A distinguishing feature of the Florida Panther is they do not have the capacity to roar like lions and tigers.  Instead they hiss, growl and purr, along with several other distinct calls.

Their cubs are born with spotted coats and typically have blue eyes.  They stay with their mother for about the first two years of life, while learning how to hunt.

Like all big cats, the Florida Panther is a carnivore.  Their prey includes mammals from mice to deer, birds and small alligators.

The Florida Panther is related to all cats in existence today.  They descended from a common ancestor that appeared about 15 million years ago.

The greatest threat to the Florida Panther is habitat destruction.   The roads and housing developments which crisscross Florida’s geography are hostile territory for the panthers.

Interstate highways and high speed vehicles take their toll on these big cats.  Unfortunately, vehicular death is often the verification of a panther’s presence.

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