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Amazing Photos of Florida Panther and Cubs Bring a Bright Spot to a Deadly Year

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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florida panther with cubThis has been the deadliest year on record for Florida panthers (Puma or Felis concolor coryi), but the critically endangered big cats also ended 2012 with some pretty amazing news. For the first time, an uncollared female has been photographed carrying her cubs to a new den.

The photographs, taken by motion-sensitive camera traps two months ago, were released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) last week. They show a mother panther carrying three kittens in her mouth, one at a time, as they travel to a new location. Kevin Godsea, FWS project leader for the wildlife refuges in the region, told the Huffington Post the mother may have been moving the cubs to drier ground after heavy rains. Many Florida panthers carry radio collars, allowing biologists to track their movements—and find their bodies if they stop moving—but this uncollared female was not regularly monitored. Biologists didn’t even know that she had any kittens, let alone three of them, until they checked the camera traps.

Estimates for Florida panther populations range from as low as 100 animals to as high as 160. Although they still enjoy a relatively high birth rate, the cats die as quickly as they can breed, usually after being struck by motor vehicles. So far this year 17 panthers have been struck and killed by cars and trucks on Florida roads. Another nine have died from other causes, often injuries resulting from conflict with other panthers, as the cats are very possessive of their territories. With a few days to go in 2012, this is already the deadliest year on record for the panthers, beating the previous record of 24 dead in 2009.

Ultimately, this year’s deaths may total more than 26, or have further consequences. As Craig Pittman reported in the Tampa Bay Times, a female found dead on December 11 had previously been seen rearing two 9-month-old kittens. The mother’s cause of death is still under investigation and wildlife officials are looking for her progeny, which are unlikely to survive on their own.

Many panthers in Florida are actually no longer pure members of their subspecies, due to an import of eight female mountain lions (Puma concolor) from Texas in 1995. At the time, the Florida panther population was as low as 20 to 30 cats. Adding females to the population, according to research published December 17 in the Journal of Animal Ecology, refreshed the panthers’ gene pool and improved breeding productivity. The University of Florida researchers suggest that the panther population would have fallen below 10 individuals by 2010 without the influx of the new breeding partners. Nonetheless, the cats today still show signs of inbreeding, such as crooked tails.

The good news is that Florida panthers are breeding. According to the Huffington Post report, 40 panther kittens have been born this year to collared parents (the only ones for which reliable breeding numbers are available). The bad news is that the animals are still dying as quickly as they breed, and the rapid development of Florida’s wild habitat will only make this worse in the future.

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Charles Hollahan 3:13 pm 12/27/2012

    The inbreeding is a really bad sign but it will take time for the introduced panthers to spread their genes so perhaps there’s still hope for this species.

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  2. 2. Ranjit Suresh 12:21 am 12/28/2012

    Given the fact that the Florida population of Puma concolor is now well interbred with Texas cougars, it’s about time we abandon this “Florida panther” name.

    There was never a significant distinction to begin with. The species is simply not very diverse and mitochondrial DNA suggests that there’s not much basis for recognizing a unique Florida subspecies.

    The Florida panther survives as a marketing device for conservationists.

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  3. 3. manniking50 5:03 am 12/28/2012


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  4. 4. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 8:44 am 12/28/2012

    Ranjit, panther/puma/mountain lion taxonomy and genetics are still a matter of great debate. The majority of scientists still consider it a separate subspecies. No matter what, it is a unique, endangered population that deserves protection.

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  5. 5. outsidethebox 12:10 pm 12/28/2012

    If there is anything less worthy of respect than the idea of a sub species in regard to these hemi,demi,neo-quasi “Florida Panthers” it is “a unique endangered population”. If they make it, fine. If they don’t make it stop trying to play god with nature.

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  6. 6. SirFrancisBacon 5:01 pm 12/28/2012

    What constitutes “playing God with nature”? From a Judeo-Christian perspective, God creates, destroys, and conserves. Therefore, many dissimilar human activities fall under the heading of “playing God.” In other words, the phrase is meaningless, except as a rhetorical device.

    I find it interesting that you’ve chosen to use the rhetorical device in an attempt to justify (or at least condone) destruction and castigate conservation.

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  7. 7. bucketofsquid 5:58 pm 12/28/2012

    @Outsidethebox – I asked God about your post. He says that you are wrong because humans have been “playing god” since they picked up the first rock and whacked something with it. The natural state of humans is naked and without tools of any kind. That means a life expectancy of somewhere in the mid 30s. If you are over 35 you may want to rethink your attitude.

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  8. 8. outsidethebox 4:43 pm 01/1/2013

    Well you see I’m not a “member of the club”. I don’t get to make the decision about whether this group of animals has to be saved because they’re cute and furry or this other group should die because they’re “invasive”. Like most people not in the club I’m just supposed to pay taxes so they can play their little “conservation” games.

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  9. 9. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 8:46 am 01/2/2013

    Devil’s advocates are always welcome. Read through the archive for a broader understanding of invasive species (although I could do a whole other regular blog on that topic). (Oh, and I write about a lot of critters that are far from cute.)

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