The Florida Panther is an ecologically-distinct population of the common American Mountain Lion. With its limited habitat, it is now severely endangered.
The American Mountain Lion is one of the most widely-distributed animals in the Western Hemisphere, stretching from Canada all the way to the South American Andes. It is known by a variety of local names: “Mountain Lion”, “Catamount”, “Puma”, “Panther”, or “Cougar”. All of them refer to the same cat: the largest cat in North America (though not as large as the Jaguar), it is tawny brown, with a smallish head and a very long tail, often as long as two-thirds of the body length.
The Mountain Lion was first described scientifically in 1771 by Linnaeus, from a specimen shot in Brazil. He dubbed it Felis concolor. In 1834, the taxonomist William Jardine moved the species to the new genus Puma along with the Jaguarundi, which was later also moved to its own genus. Over the years, authorities named at least 30 different subspecies of Mountain Lion, with the Florida subspecies named as P.c. coryi, but in 2005 genetic sequencing reduced this to six, and then in 2017 to only two. Today all of the Mountain Lions in North America are grouped in the subspecies Puma concolor couguari, and those in South America are considered to be Puma concolor concolor.
Fossils and DNA analysis indicate that the earliest big cats crossed into North America from Asia about 8 million years ago. By 2 million years ago, North America had lions, cheetahs, sabertooth cats, and Mountain Lions. Originally a North American animal, the Mountain Lion also spread into South America when the falling sea levels caused by the Ice Age produced a land bridge between the two continents, allowing megafauna to move north and south (a period known as “The Great Interchange”). When the Ice Age ended about 15,000 years ago, nearly all of the large mammals, including the big cats, died out. The American Mountain Lion was one of the survivors.
The Florida Panther is an isolated sub-population that has become adapted to Florida’s subtropical habitat. It is generally smaller than other North American populations, weighing around 125 pounds, and also tends to be a bit darker in color.
In pre-Columbian times, the Florida Panther ranged through most of the southeastern US, sometimes appearing as far north as Tennessee. Other cougar populations covered nearly all of North America from Canada to Mexico and into South America.
When settlers from Europe began populating North America, however, the Mountain Lion was considered to be a dangerous threat to humans and livestock, and it was systematically eradicated almost to extinction. In Florida, where cattle ranching was an important industry, a bounty was offered on the big cats; they were shot and poisoned, eventually being driven into pockets of swamp and wetlands which the settlers considered worthless and did not want to go.
Although the Florida Panther is, like the rest of its North American cousins, an adaptable generalist that can survive in a variety of habitats, it prefers the dry upland pine forests, and does not do as well in wetlands where its preferred prey—deer—are scarce and where it is forced to depend upon smaller prey animals like raccoons. The population of Panthers fell steadily. By 1967, when serious ecological studies began, it was estimated that there were only around 30 adult Panthers still in existence, surviving precariously in places like the Everglades and Big Cypress. The Florida Panther was one of the first animals to be listed by the Endangered Species Act. It is now the object of intensive conservation study, and, while Panthers are shy and elusive in the wild and seldom seen, a number of individuals have been radio-collared so their movements and habits can be observed from airplanes.
Since the Florida Panther is a large predator, it requires an extensive home area in order to find sufficient prey. A typical home range for one adult cat can extend for 70 square miles: males typically include more than one female within their range, so they require even more space—as much as 400 square miles.
Unlike most other Mountain Lions, which have to deal with “winter”, the subtropical Florida Panther is able to breed year-round. After a pregnancy of three months, the females give birth to up to four spotted kittens, usually denning in a thick stand of palmetto. The kittens lose their spots at about one year old and a few months later leave their mother, wandering as far as 150 miles to find a territory of their own.
In the wild, Panthers live for 10-12 years. As top predators, Florida Panthers do not have any natural enemies except humans, and the leading natural cause of death is territorial disputes with other Panthers. Today, the primary cause of death for adults are collisions with cars. Panthers in the Everglades area have also been effected by mercury pollutants in the water, which enter the food chain and are ingested by the Panthers when they eat raccoons as prey.
But the most significant threat to the Florida Panther is its loss of genetic diversity, caused by the small population and limited range. Reduced to as little as 30 breeding adults, the population has become severely inbred, and exhibits a number of genetic disorders. In 1995, conservation biologists attempted to deal with this problem by introducing a number of Mountain Lions from Texas into the wild Florida population, hoping to introduce some genetic diversity. There are some indications that this controversial move was at least partially successful, as the number of genetic defects that have been seen recently has declined. But the Florida Panther is still severely endangered, with less than 100 and perhaps as few as 70 remaining in the wild.