The Florida panther is tan to tawny beige, not black. No black panthers live in the United States.
Their eyes are blue at birth and turn golden as they age. Kittens are born with spots for camouflage and lose these spots as they age.
In November 2016, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) documented the first female panther north of the Caloosahatchee River since 1973, using a trail camera in Babcock Ranch Preserve in Charlotte County. Her tracks identified her as a female, since males have larger paws. Although male panthers regularly wander north, traveling ten miles a night along their 200 square-mile range, females tend to stay south of the river, with a range of about 75 square miles.
The Florida panther, our state animal, is the last subspecies of Puma still alive in the eastern United States and occupies less than 5% of its historic range. Puma means “mighty magic animal” in the Quechua Indian language. Puma concolor coryi was listed as federally endangered in 1967 when only 12-20 panthers still survived. Because they are shy, solitary and wide-ranging, panthers are difficult to count. Although the population has rebounded to an estimated 100-180, this powerful six-foot long tan cat still faces threats to its survival.
In contrast to bobcats, panthers have a long tail, which helps balance their body when they pounce or run.
They hunt by stealth, and by ambushing prey. Their diet consists of deer, feral hogs, rodents, armadillos, small mammals,
reptiles and occasionally, unprotected pets or livestock.
The greatest threat is habitat loss. Last year, nine land owners (including an FWC commissioner) pushed for an incidental take permit to develop 45,000 acres of land adjacent to the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge and Big Cypress National Preserve. This permit, if issued by the South Florida office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, allows developers the right to “take” any endangered species without penalty, thus bypassing the Endangered Species Act. Because Florida panthers are protected by the Endangered Species Act, killing a Florida panther is a third-degree felony under state law, punishable by up to five years in jail and/or up to a $5,000 fine. Development brings roads and cars. In 1996, 42 panthers died, with vehicles killing 34. For the past two years, the FWC reported record numbers of panther deaths due to road kills, in spite of 42 wildlife underpasses along the highway.
Human fear of large predators also interferes with the path of panther recovery progress. No Florida panther has ever attacked a human. Although ranchers are reimbursed for loss of livestock, some are pushing for a hunting season on panthers, and one panther recently suffered severe gunshot wounds from an illegal hunter. Panthers serve an important niche in the ecosystem, eating deer and wild hogs, as well as rodents.
Inbreeding poses another threat, and in the 1990s male panthers showed initial signs of sterility. So Florida biologists released eight female Texas cougars in South Florida which brought new genes to the inbred small population. At least 240 panthers are needed to ensure species survival, and the federal panther recovery plan calls for 240 cats in three locations in Florida.
Are Florida panthers back from the brink (as Bill Samuels says) or at a conservation crossroads? Currently we are losing 20 acres per hour of natural habitat to accommodate the 1000 people per day moving to Florida. If we conserve land for the Florida Wildlife Corridor, we may preserve our iconic panther, and save enough water for ourselves. The choice is ours.
Male panthers weigh up to 160 pounds and average 6-8 feet in length. Females are smaller and 33% lighter.
Their paws are large with sharp claws. Pound for pound, they are the most powerful cat, capable of killing a hog twice its weight.
All of the photos shown here are captive panthers.