On the brink of
extinction | Florida's official state mammal
| Efficient hunters | Panthers
lead solitary lives | Raising kittens
| The struggle to survive | What is being done
On the brink of extinction
Florida panthers are large, tawny-colored cats, once plentiful throughout the southeastern U.S. Today, the remaining 100 to 160 roam only in the remote cypress swamps and hardwood hammocks of Florida, south of Lake Okeechobee. If nothing else is done, they could be gone in a few decades.
The Florida panther is on the brink of extinction. Overcoming the problems to secure its future requires complex, costly and sometimes controversial action. Broad public support is vital if these programs are to succeed.
Florida's official state mammal
Habitat loss and hunting over the past century are the principal reasons for their decline. Their future is looking bleak for other reasons, too. Genetic defects, resulting from inbreeding among the remaining population and mercury poisoning, are threatening the the panthers' survival. Listed as an endangered species in 1973, Florida panthers are protected by state and federal laws. In 1982, they became the official Florida state mammal. Fortunately, many people are working to help this symbol of Florida's wilderness survive.
Adult male panthers weigh up to 150 pounds and can measure almost seven feet long from the nose to the tip of the tail. Females are smaller, rarely weighing more than 100 pounds. Panthers are built to hunt live prey. Deer and wild hogs are their preferred food, but, when these are not available, panthers will eat raccoons, armadillos and even alligators. Interestingly, panthers eating a diet of small animals are not as healthy as those with plenty of deer to hunt. While they are good sprinters, panthers rarely chase prey for long distances. Instead, prey is singled out, stalked and ambushed.
Panthers lead solitary lives
Florida panthers are solitary animals. An adult maintains a home range to live, hunt and, if female, raise its young alone. A male panther's home range is very large and averages 275 square miles and overlaps with the smaller home ranges of females. Panthers maintain boundaries by marking with scents.
Female panthers start breeding when they are about 2½ years old. Males mature by about 3 years of age. However, panthers will not breed until they have established a home range. Females give birth to a litter of up to four kittens after a three-month pregnancy. The kittens are born in a simple, secluded den in dense vegetation to protect them from the sun and rain.
Weaned after about two months, the kittens may stay with their mother for up to two years, learning to hunt and survive. Eventually, the mother will leave her kittens at a kill and not return. The young then head off to make their own way.
The struggle to survive
Common causes of panther deaths
Florida panthers are killed by cars and trucks, particularly on State Road 29 and Alligator Alley (I-75), and -- although it is against the law -- hunters still shoot panthers occasionally.
Health … the biggest threat
The biggest threats to the remaining panthers, however, are their health and continuing loss of habitat. Florida panthers have an unusually large number of health problems. Most are related to poor habitat conditions and genetic defects.
Around the Everglades, panthers have been contaminated with mercury (at least one has died from mercury poisoning) by eating raccoons high in mercury, which passes through the aquatic food chain. The mercury's origin is being debated and is uncertain.
What is being done
Plans to save the panthers focus on three areas of action.
First, additional habitat must be secured and enhanced.
Second, programs are under way to breed panthers in captivity for later release back into the wild.
Third, scientists are exploring ways to increase the genetic variability of panthers through cross-breeding with closely related subspecies.
The Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge was established in Collier County where research is being conducted to learn more about the panther and its habitat needs.
As with most conservation issues, the plight of the panther goes beyond the question of whether it is worth saving this particular species. If our wilderness cannot support panthers, then many other less visible species also could perish. Let us hope that future generations will know this beautiful animal and the wilderness it symbolizes.