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Study: Florida panther population in better shape than before; still a long way to go

Picture of Florida panther courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — In 1995, conservation managers made a desperate bid to save the Florida panther from extinction and released eight female pumas imported from Texas in hopes they’d breed with native males.

Fifteen years later, the Florida panther population has increased threefold, and while the species remains in peril, the big cats now have a better chance for survival.

Two new research papers—in the journals Science and Biological Conservation—document the breeding program’s success and outline an unusually long, collaborative effort among agencies. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Park Service and the National Cancer Institute’s Laboratory of Genomic Diversity have been conducting field and lab work on panthers since the 1980s.

University of Florida scientists joined the effort in 2005, analyzing data and conducting population modeling studies.

“What we found was that the panthers that had a mix of Texas and Florida genes were more genetically diverse, had fewer defects and were, in general, surviving better,” said Jeff Hostetler, a doctoral student with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

There were about 25 panthers left in the state when the eight Texas pumas were brought to Florida. There are now more than 100, concentrated mostly between Miami and Naples.

“The big picture is that things have improved from a genetic standpoint for the population, coinciding with an increase in population,” said Dave Onorato, a panther expert with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Florida Panther Project. “The evidence is pretty clear that there has been a positive impact on the population.”

Listed as an endangered species since 1967, the Florida panther was designated the official state animal in 1982. Despite its popularity, the species was in dire straits by the early 1990s and the cats suffered from numerous inbreeding-related problems: poor sperm quality, heart defects, parasites and infectious diseases.

The first generation of kittens born to the Texas females was a much more robust group, but

future litters may eventually display problems linked to inbreeding.

“The population does need to get larger so that it’s not as dependent on periodic supplementations of new genetic material,” Onorato said.

Another major issue is that the cats require so much space, especially males, which are more territorial than females, said Warren Johnson, a geneticist with the National Cancer Institute.

Close proximity to humans could pose problems, although Johnson pointed out that people in the western U.S. often live close to pumas.

While time-consuming and expensive, the research has been invaluable, Johnson said. The lessons scientists have learned from panthers, especially in terms of infectious diseases and inherited disorders, are applicable to humans, he said.

“In essence, in-depth studies of wild populations can teach us a lot,” he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s role in the panther research is supported financially by sales of the Florida “Protect the Panther” license plate, the state’s third most popular specialty plate, as of 2009.

Madan Oli, a population ecology professor who led the UF team, said because scientists have studied panthers so consistently for so long, the amount and variety of data collected from the carnivores were stunning and valuable.

Researchers used radio-transmitter collars on larger cats and outfitted kittens with something akin to the microchips used for cats and dogs. The microchips let them identify individual panthers, and the collars gave them precise information about where the adult cats roamed.

Oli echoed other research team members’ assessment of the findings: A population of 100 panthers is much better than 25, but there’s still a long way to go.

“As far as persistence of the species … the outlook remains tenuous, but it’s definitely a whole lot better than it was,” he said.

Contacts:

Writer: Mickie Anderson, 352-273-3566, mickiea@ufl.edu

Sources: Jeff Hostetler, 352-846-0648, hostetle@ufl.edu

Warren Johnson, 301-846-7483, johnsonw@ncifcrf.gov

Dave Onorato, 239-417-6352, dave.onorato@myfwc.com