Family: Felidae, Cats view all from this family
Description The Florida panther is a subspecies of Puma (or mountain lion, cougar). A large, unspotted cat, it has a relatively small head and a long, black-tipped tail that reaches nearly 2/3 of its body length. The Florida panther is generally smaller and darker than other Puma subspecies. Typically, a Florida panther has a tawny upperside and pale gray underside. Dark spots occur at base of whiskers, and ears are short and rounded, with dark backs. Florida panthers have long, heavy legs and large feet. Juveniles are buff with black spots. Adult measurements are as follows: L 6–7' (1.5–2.13 m); Ht 24-28" (59-69 cm); Wt 65 up to, and exceeding, 161 lb (29-73 kg). Females are smaller than males.
Endangered Status Following years of persecution and habitat loss, the Florida panther population had been reduced to such a small size that in 1967 it was listed by the federal government as endangered throughout its historic range. Once found throughout the southeast, initial surveys confirmed the presence of only 30 individuals remaining in south Florida. Studies revealed low genetic variation and physical abnormalities associated with inbreeding depression. In 1995, wildlife managers embarked on a genetic restoration program, releasing female Texas puma into south Florida. Preliminary analyses suggest the program was successful; genetically-based defects have decreased and survival and reproduction have increased. Today there are about 80 Florida panthers remaining in 5% of their historic range. Though the population has grown in recent years, its isolation and small size, diminishing habitat, and human activities jeopardize its continued existence. Hopefully, with current conservation and scientific efforts underway, the Florida panther will continue to survive and someday recover.
Breeding Female panthers reach sexual maturity at about 1 ˝ to 2 ˝ years of age, and males at about 3 years of age. Florida panthers are polygamous, meaning that they mate with more than one partner. A female signifies her sexual availability through urine scent and vocalizations. Gestation (or pregnancy) lasts 90 to 98 days, and litters consist of 1 to 4 kittens. Females usually will not become reproductive again until her kittens are 1 ˝ to 2 years old.
Births occur throughout the year but are most common during the spring. Females give birth and rear their kittens in a den. Dens are located in dense, close-to-the-ground vegetation, such as saw palmetto. Kittens weigh slightly less than 1 pound at birth and are born with spotted grayish-brown fur and closed ears and eyes. By 4 months of age, the kittens’ eyes begin to turn brown. The spots on the kittens’ coats are well-faded by 6 months of age, but do not fully disappear until after 1 year of age.
Dispersal Dispersal is the movement of an individual from its place of birth to the area where it reproduces (i.e., to its home range). For Florida panthers, dispersal begins when juveniles become independent of their mothers, around 14 months of age. In general, males disperse further than females, and females tend to settle near their mother’s home range. The greatest dispersal distance reported for a juvenile Florida panther was made by a young male that dispersed 139 miles, followed by a second dispersal of 145 miles.
Home Ranges Home ranges are areas where an animal conducts its basic activities of resting, hunting, mating, and caring for young and where habitat requirements for prey are met. As top carnivores, Florida panthers are wide-ranging and require large home ranges to acquire sufficient prey and meet all their other needs. Male panthers typically have larger home ranges than females. The average home range size of a female Florida panther and male Florida panther is 179 km2 (or 69 miles2) and 362 km2 (or 140 miles2), respectively. Home ranges exceeding 1300 km2 (approx. 500 miles2) have been reported.
Mortality Most wild panthers do not live more than 12 years, although in 2001, biologists documented the death of a 19-20 year old female panther. The two major sources of panther mortality are vehicular collisions and intraspecific (between panther) aggression. Other sources include viruses, bacterial infections, parasites, congenital heart defects, and environmental contaminants such as mercury. To reduce the risk of disease and parasites, agency biologists administer vaccines to all captured kitten and adult panthers as a part of the panther management program.
Habitat As habitat generalists, Florida panthers use a mosaic of habitats that includes cypress swamps, agricultural areas, freshwater marshes, hardwood hammocks, and pine flatwoods. These habitats serve a variety of panther needs –ranging from cover for resting, denning, and stalking prey to open areas for prey habitat and panther dispersal. Human-induced habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation continue to reduce habitat connectivity and availability while posing deadly obstacles such as highways, a leading source of panther mortality. As habitat becomes scarcer, intraspecific (between panther) aggression may increase, further reducing the imperiled population.
Diet Florida panthers primarily eat white-tailed deer and feral hogs, though they will eat other animals such as raccoons, armadillos, rabbits, rats, birds, and alligators.
Hunting Florida panthers hunt at dawn and dusk. They rush short distances and spring at their prey. They kill by a bite to the neck or skull. An adult male typically consumes larger-sized prey (e.g., deer) every 8 to 11 days, while an adult female with kittens may consume more. After eating, panthers "cache" their prey by putting debris over the carcass. Panthers may return to feed on the same carcass over several days.
Range Historically, the Florida panther ranged throughout the southeastern United States. Today, however, Florida panthers occur with regularity only in south Florida, about 5% of their historic range. Reproduction is known to occur in 5 counties of south Florida: Collier, Hendry, Lee, Miami-Dade, and Monroe.