Reintroduction Efforts Save Florida Panther Population From Extinction
December 18, 2012

Reintroduction Efforts Save Florida Panther Population From Extinction

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

In the early 1990s, Florida´s panther population was on the verge on being completely wiped out, with an estimated 20 to 25 of the big cats left in the state.

To reverse the trends of this dire situation, Florida conservationists introduced eight female Texas pumas in an effort to mate them with local panthers in 1995. The result has been deemed a success as the big cats have rebounded in a big way over the past 17 years, according to a new report in the Journal of Animal Ecology.

In their report, University of Florida researchers Madan Oli and Jeff Hostetler found there was a nearly 71 percent chance that the panther population would have fallen below 10 if the Texas cats had not been introduced. The scientists based their findings on several decades of field data and genetic information collected from the panther population.

“We found that the Florida population would´ve declined, on average, by about 5 percent per year,” Oli, a UF population ecology professor, said in a statement. “And that´s essentially telling us there was a high chance that the population would´ve eventually gone extinct.”

According to state conservation officials, the big cats´ population has grown about 4 percent each year since the conservation initiative, to between 100 and 160 individuals.

“It shows that the genetic restoration effort was effective at averting the loss of the Florida panther,” Dave Onorato, a panther expert with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission´s Florida Panther Project, said in the statement.

Conservationists have kept a watchful eye on the Florida panther population for decades, having been listed as an endangered species since 1967. Besides being under threat from poachers, automobiles, and habitat loss, the cats suffered from genetic and breeding problems, including low sperm quality, kinked tails, and heart defects.

The recent study also noted that the genetic nature of the Florida-Texas hybrids played a role in the panther population recovering from the brink of extinction.

When the Texas cats were introduced to Florida, officials were skeptical about their ability to adapt to a new habitat or to successfully breed, but the new populations´ thriving numbers and increased genetic diversity have given officials hope that a similar effort could work in the future, Onorato said.

“I would say that at least in the short term, the outlook is good for the Florida panther,” said Hostetler, who worked on the project for more than four years as part of his doctoral studies. “But there are still a lot of threats to their survival that could be important in the long run.”

Pumas have been known to roam far and wide across North America, but panthers, as they are known in Florida, tend to remain in the state´s Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades wilderness areas.

Previous studies have shown that the big cats currently occupy about 5 percent of their historic range and tend to be poor colonizers of new terrain as females usually restrict their roaming patterns, remaining close to their mother.