Table of Contents
Mistakenly perceived as a threat to humans, livestock and game animals, the panther was persecuted and hunted to near extinction by the mid-1950’s. The U.S. Department of the Interior listed the Florida Panther as endangered in 1967 and congress passed the endangered species act in 1973. As the human population expanded, panthers began to lose more and more habitat (living space). Now the panther faces multiple threats, the largest those is habitat loss, which can be resolved by re-establishing breeding populations in appropriate portions of its former range of the southeastern United States. For more information on current threats to the panther population, see Panther Info.
The Florida Panther is special simply because it exists. As a top predator this subspecies of mountain lion is known as an “Umbrella Species” because its survival means the survival of the flora and fauna (plants and animals) that live in its range. If we are losing big cats, it is because we are losing natural wilderness areas to urban sprawl. Preserving wilderness protects the quality of soil, water and air that all species, including us depend on for life.
Over the years, several things have been done to save the panther. In 1974 the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve were formed and together have conserved over 645,000 acres of panther habitat. In 1981, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Established the Florida Panther Recovery Plan to outline actions to prevent extinction and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission expanded their field research to capture and radio-collar panthers. In 1982, the Florida’s schoolchildren adopted the Florida Panther as the state’s mammal. In 1989 the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge was established and today it protects 26,400 acres of panther habitat. In 1993 wildlife crossings and fencing were completed along Interstate 75 and to date several more have been installed along other major roads in the panthers range.
In 1994 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved plans to restore gene flow between the Florida Panther and Texas cougar populations. The panther and the cougar are both subspecies of the mountain lion. Panthers bred naturally with Texas Cougars where their ranges overlapped. This natural exchange of genetic material kept both subspecies of Puma healthy. Unfortunately, the panther population is now isolated in the southern tip of Florida. The program began in 1995 with the introduction of eight female Texas cougars into the panther population. The cougars have accomplished their goal of producing offspring with Florida Panthers and the program was completed in 2001. Genetic Restoration has restored historic gene flow, saving the Florida Panther from certain demise due to inbreeding. The estimated FL panther population in 1995 was 30 to 50, it is now estimated at 50 to 70. While this is good news, reintroduction into appropriate portions of the panther’s historic range is still necessary to ensure its long-term survival. For more information on this program, see Genetic Restoration.
In 2000, several conservationists filed suit against the USFWS, US Army Corp of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration to protect priority panther habitat in south Florida. For the full press release, go to Defender’s Habitat & Highways Campaign.
In 2001, the US Fish and Wildlife Service formed a new and diverse recovery team that is updating the Florida Panther Recovery Plan to include current research results and plans for future recovery steps. FPS is a member of this team. To learn more about the recovery plan revision, see Recovery News.
Re-establishment of panther populations into appropriate portions of its former range is an important part of the recovery process and essential to prevent the extinction of the species. In 1988 and again from February ‘93 through June ‘95, a translocation study evaluated reintroduction feasibility, range and prey base in a suitable habitat in north Florida. The Okefenokee Swamp, Pinhook Swamp, Osceola National Forest, Apalachicola National Forest and other areas of the southeastern United States offer some of the highest potential. The study confirms that the cats can successfully establish territories and sustain themselves when reintroduced.
After more than two decades of research we are now in a phase of the process that requires a major public education effort. An understanding of and concern for preserving natural systems must be developed among landowners, business and recreational interests.
Reintroduction is the responsibility of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in accordance with the Endangered Species Act. Political and social difficulties must be resolved in order to move forward. This requires active participation in the process by Americans who strongly believe in the conservation ethic. There is a part for everyone to play in saving the Florida panther. If you wish to help prevent the extinction of this living symbol of wilderness, become involved. It is a way of giving something back. To learn how you can help, see What You Can Do.
The current estimated population of Florida Panthers in the wild is 50 to 70. These numbers are up (from 30 to 50 in 1995) due to the success of the Genetic Restoration Program in south Florida. This population increase is good news, however the panthers still face an uncertain future because of habitat loss. Reintroduction into appropriate portions of their historic range of the southeastern United States remains an important part of the recovery process and is essential to prevent the extinction of the species.
Florida Panthers once roamed the entire southeastern United States; including Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Arkansas. Now, the remaining population is isolated in South Florida where their habitat is shrinking due to over-development.
In addition to genetics, the captive-breeding program still has a lot to offer including public outreach and research capabilities that aren’t possible in the wild. White Oak has also been refining its process of conditioning panthers for release to avoid the problems found with captive-held cougars in the North Florida Reintroduction Feasibility Study of 1995.
The Latin name for the Florida Panther is Puma concolor coryi.
After consideration of current biological taxonomy, The Florida Panther Society has accepted the genus classification change of the mountain lion from Felis to Puma. The cat itself has not changed, only the classification has changed.
The term 'Black
Panther' is quite often used in connection with large black cats - however
there is no one distinct species of wildcat called a 'Black Panther'. Over the
years it has become used as a common name that can be applied to any large
black-coated cat. When you see a picture of a 'Black Panther' it is most likely
that you are looking at either a Leopard or possibly a Jaguar with Melanistic
The term Melanistic is derived from melanin, a dark colored skin and hair pigment. In cats, melanism results in the fur of the animal being very dark or black in color. In many cases the usual markings of the animal can be faintly seen through the dark fur, especially at certain angles in bright sunlight. Melanistic cats are commonly born into mixed litters along with normally colored siblings.
(Note: There is no documented evidence of the existence of a melanistic Florida Panther. Information in this answer is from the web site Big Cats Online. )
The Florida Panther (Puma concolor coryi) and Texas Cougar (Puma concolor stanleyana) are two different subspecies of the mountain lion. There are some thirty subspecies of the American mountain lion — also called Puma concolor in Latin — that live in the Western Hemisphere, ranging from the southern tip of Chile northward into Canada. The Florida panther is the only breeding population of mountain lion that is known to survive east of the Mississippi River.
There are some small physical or biological differences that distinguish Florida panthers from some of the other cougar subspecies, such as differences in the coloration and texture of the fur, body size, and skull structure. The Florida panther has short, rather stiff fur, with a slight reddish tinge, highlighted with gray. Its body size is smaller. Its skull has a broad, flat frontal region with a broad, upwardly arching nasal area. Some of the Florida panther’s other distinct characteristics, like the kink at the end of its tail and a cowlick on its back, are a result of inbreeding.
The Texas cougar is a closely related subspecies to the Florida panther. Texas cats weigh 25 to 30 percent more on average than Florida panthers and have a different skull shape, fur color and texture.
For the most part, the mountain lion subspecies are very similar. Nonetheless, each unique subspecies is still important to the overall health of the American Mountain Lion populations. Historically, different subspecies interbred where their populations overlapped. This breeding between populations provided the genetic variability necessary to survival.
Then there is the ethical side of the question. Aside from the satisfaction of having an animal such as this in one’s possession, is there a reason to do so which serves the creature and is in its best interest? You have to decide that for yourself. In the service of all things wild we are obligated to assure that Wilderness exists and that all its component parts are free to exist and fulfill their role in Nature as was intended in its design. It is not about what we want, but about just possibly what we might do to be a friend of the Earth and truly care for her.
Last revised: May 15, 2002