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 Florida 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.
The ecosystem of South Florida is a very delicate balance of soil and water, plant life, animals, minerals, and weather. This system has evolved slowly over millions of years, but has changed dramatically in just the last few hundred.
Human habitations in great numbers have affected almost every aspect of the Florida ecosystem. Not all of these changes are bad by any means. A sailor stranded ashore in Florida in the 1690’s would very likely have perished from starvation, disease, or animal attack in a barren and hostile environment. A modern sailor on a 1990’s Florida beach has a dozen restaurants to choose from within a short walk. However, changes that are beneficial to humans are sometimes harmful to existing animal populations.
Prior to the arrival of large numbers of European settlers, the Florida panther was secure as the dominant or “top” predator in the Florida ecosystem. It oculd hunt everything and nothing hunted it, except for limited panther kills by Native Americans. Large game prey, particularly deer, were plentiful, and there were thousands of square miles of suitable territory. We have no numbers for previous centuries, but the panther population must have been numberous and, with a larger gene pool, was no doubt healthier than today.
Other than the panther, few large predatory mammals inhabit the South Florida ecosystem. The black bear is one. As a result, the panther retains its positon as a top predator today. However, circumstances have changed. Large-scale hunting of panther in the 18th and 19th centuries–for sport as well as to eliminate their perceived threat to settled areas–drastically reduced their numbers and restricted their range.
Increasing human settlement also affected the panther’s prey population. Human hunters became aggressive competitors for deer. The shrinking deer population was once a critical obstacle to panther survival. On the other hand, European settlers brought with them domestic hogs; when they escaped and bred in the wild, they became the other primary prey animal in the panther’s diet.
Identification of the Florida Panther
Physical features: The shape of the skull is characterized by a more exaggerated rise of the nasal arch. Paws are smaller & legs slightly longer than its cousin. It has shorter hair, a crooked tail, and a whorl of hair in the middle of its back. White flecks also appear on the fur, but this is probably the result of ticks. Color of the coat varies from a rusty buff to fawn gray, while the muzzle, chest, and underbelly is white. It is believed that the crook and whorl are the result of recessive genes being expressed through inbreeding.
Panther sign / Tracks: the shape of the print is asymmetrical, a 3 lobbed pad surrounded by 4 toes, normally no claw marks show but if they appear they will be small sharp points. When walking the hind paw is often placed in the print of the forepaw, one overlapping the other. The forepaws are wider than the hind ones. The pad of an adult is 50/70mm on the fore while the hind is 48/60mm. Bobcat tracks are usually smaller than that of a panther kitten, whose prints would normally be along side its mothers or siblings. Dog tracks will by symmetrical with blunt claw marks. Bear tracks have a wider, broader pad with 5 toes and blunt claw marks.
Territorial markings: scat – a pile of leaves and earth raked up by the hind paws and then urinated and/or defecated upon, the rake marks 6″ in length. Other markings are urine and droppings, tree and earth scrapings.
Remains of a kill: bite marks will appear on the throat, back of the neck or base of the skull. Tooth marks will be 2″ apart.
Sounds: the most identifiable is the panthers scream, this is an extreme vocal warning and is not normally heard. Common communication is usually in the manner of low growls, chirps, hisses, whistles, and purring sounds.
Sightings: are rare. But a full description and details of an encounter should be recorded and passed on to the FGC. If a cat appears to be injured the authorities should be notified – the FGC, NPS, Wildlife rescue, or police.
The Life Cycle of Florida Panther
- Females mature faster than males and have been known to conceive as early as 18 months, but the average breeding age is 2-3 years.
- Though conception can take place anytime during the year, the breeding season generally falls between October through March, and kittens are often born in the spring.
- When the female is ready to mate she will leave special scent markings which signal the male, they will then search each other out, mate, & may stay and hunt together for a few days before going their separate ways.
- The gestation period is 92-96 days.
- Panthers usually produce 1 litter every 2 years with an average litter size of 1-3 kittens.
- The mother prepares a den, a dry sheltered place such as a say palmetto thicket or overhang, offering protection from rain & sun.
- Kittens are born blind, their coat is spotted and eyes are blue.
- Eyes open within 2-3 weeks at which time they begin to walk.
- The kittens are able to sustain their energy and body temperature for 2 days, which is an amazing feat for an infant. She can leave the kittens for up to 36 hours and travel up to 5 miles to find food.
- Kittens are helpless and remain near the den for the first 2 months of life. They are weaned and introduced to meat at 6-8 weeks, which the mother will bring back to the denning area.
- The first 6 months of the kittens’ life tends to be the most dangerous. Panther kittens have a better chance of survival in a fertile area with thick vegetation for cover & large prey close to home.
- When the kittens are old enough they will travel with their mother to learn the hunting and survival skills they will need.
- At 4-6 months of age the markings begin to fade the coat become a buff color and the eyes turn from brown to pale gold.
- At 18 months they are capable hunters and will shortly leave their mother, however they may continue to travel together for a time. Eventually they will separate in search of their own territory.
- Once a territory has been established, the boundaries must be marked and maintained.
Death and Disease specifically for Florida Panther
- Cause of death: injuries due to cat fights, collisions with motor vehicles, illegal hunting, mercury poisoning, disease, death may also occur as a result of an allergic reaction to anesthesia.
- Harmful effects due to inbreeding could cause the loss of the species altogether: such as – abnormal semen, single testicle abnormality found in males; congenital heart disease, decrease in overall fitness making them more prone to disease.
- Disease: Pseudo rabies PRV – a virulent viral pathogen found in feral hogs. The virus is density dependent and is fatal to hogs, it is believed that it is transferred to panthers by eating hogs infected with the virus.
- Panleukopenia (feline distemper) – highly contagious, has the potential to be extremely dangerous for the entire panther population. Signs have shown up in 85% of those tested. They are also susceptible to Feline Leukemia, & FIV (feline AIDS virus)
- Calcivirus – is a respiratory disorder, shown up in 50% of those tested.
- Congenital Heart defect – a hole in the heart which is the result of inbreeding.
- Parasites – 7 species of tick, in large numbers can cause enimia. Tapeworm, hookworm & intestinal flukes. Ring worm.
- Starvation – occurs due to poor nutrition, ill health, & old age.
Facts about the Florida panther
Food: white-tail deer, feral hog, raccoons, armadillo, small alligator, other small rodents and fowl. Deer or hog are the preferred prey and may be taken every 7 to 10 days, the diet then being supplemented with smaller prey. A panther will usually kill its prey with a bite to the throat or back of the neck, a large carcass is consumed over a period of a few days depending on the conditions. Panthers need about 3000 calories per day, pregnant females an extra 8000, + another 20,000 if they are growing kittens.
Habitat: upper dry land & wetland areas. Dry – hardwood hammock, pine flatwoods, saw palmetto & cabbage palm thickets. Wet – cypress forest, thicket swamps & freshwater marsh. Palmetto & drier scrub areas are often used for denning and day beds. Panthers will wade and swim canals and swamps if necessary to find drier, more secure resting places and hunt for food. Panthers prefer a secluded environment away from people and are less likely to frequent low agricultural areas and citrus groves.
Social Behavior: Panthers are primarily solitary animals, they do not mate for life or live in prides but they do have a social structure. Each animal has a home range or territory which it maintains and hunts within. These ranges will tend to overlap with potential mates. Males will not tolerate other males and will fight which can be fatal. A male’s home range is more extensive covering of 250 sq. miles, increasing mating potential. But females are more tolerant of each other and have a range of 70 – 200 sq. miles. Their social order consists of resident/ more mature dominant animals who have established prime territorial ranges. Then you have the Transient or subdominant animals between the ages of 2-5 years, who live on the peripheries and are relegated to poorer hunting areas where there is a greater chance of human encroachment.
General: Panthers are most active at dusk and dawn, they can travel 15-20 miles a day, often moving in a zig-zag pattern, though they tend to rest during the daytime, travel & hunt during the cooler hours of the night. Panthers can swim and will cross wide bodies of water. They have a keen sense of smell and a field of vision of 130 degrees, they have excellent depth perception but lack the panoramic view that deer have.
They can run up to 35 mph but only for a few hundred yards, their preferred method of hunting is to creep up as close to their prey as possible and launch a short spring attack. Panthers do become used to man-made noises and frequently cross roads. They are attracted to woodland fires, and may stay near burned sites for days as deer and other prey are drawn to new vegetation. When humans approach an area they will either be still, disappear, or attempt to circle behind. Panthers can live up to between 12-15 years in the wild. A male can measure 7-8 feet from the nose to tail tip and weight 100-160 lbs. Females are about 6 feet in length and weight between 60-100 lbs.
- The panther is the official state mammal of Florida. Panthers need large areas to live in. Males need an average of 200 square miles, females need 70-75 square miles.
- Florida panthers are large, long-tailed, tawny-colored cats. Males average about 7 feet in tength, including the tail, and 119 lbs. in weight. Female panthers are smaller, with an average length of 6 1/4 feet and an average weight of 82 lbs. The largest known panther was a 154-pound male captured in Hendry County in 1989.
- A long time ago panthers could be found all over the eastern United States. However, they were overhunted because people thought these shy cats were dangerous. Now only 30 to 50 panthers can be found in south Florida.
- The Florida panther exists now primarily in national and state parks and nearby private lands in southwest Florida
- Panther kittens can be born at any time during the year, but most are born during the late spring. When the kittens are born, the mother gently holds them with her paw and licks them dry. Afterwards, the kittens nuzzle up to their mother and drink her warm milk.
- A typical panther den site is located in a saw palmetto thicket taller than 6 feet. These palmettos create a canopy that shelters the kittens from rain and exposure to the sun.
- Dens can be considerably cooler than outside air temperatures. The den is nothing more than a patch of bare ground beneath the stems and among the roots of palmettos.
- Mother panthers care for their kittens alone for about 1 to 1 1/2 years.
Use these resources to help others become educated about the Florida Panther. Enjoy the reading, photography and art included in these web sites and books:
- Information about “The Florida Panther’s Place in the Ecosystem” provided by the National Parks and Conservation Association
- National Wildlife Federation, Wildlife: https://www.npca.org/
- Defenders Of Wildlife, Florida Panther: https://defenders.org/wildlife/florida-panther
- Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge: https://floridapanther.org/
- US Fish and Wildlife Service, Species Profile for Florida panther: https://ecos.fws.gov/ecp0/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=A008
- Florida Panther Recovery Team: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Florida_Panther/
- Florida State Government Agencies central web site: http://www.myflorida.com/
Books about Florida Panther
- PANTHER: Shadow of the Swamp – by Jonathon London, illustrated by Paul Morin.
An easy read book suitable for elementary school children. Candlewick Press
- THE FLORIDA PANTHER – by Alvin and Virginia Silverstein and Laura Silverstein Nunn.
A comprehensive book suitable for middle school children. Millbrook Press.
- COUGAR – by Karen McCall & Jim Dutcher.
“Reveals a year in the life of this elegant and enigmatic creature.” Sierra Club Books – San Francisco.
- TWILIGHT OF THE PANTHER – by Ken Alvarez.
“The Inside Story of a Vanishing Cat. Biology, Bureaucracy and failure in an Endangered Species Program”. A well documented History of the panther’s plight and the politics of man. Myakka River Publishing.
- MOUNTAIN LION – by Chris Bolgiano.An unnatural history of pumas and people.
“The compelling history of these elusive creatures, focusing on their interactions with human beings – their unnatural history.” Stackpole Books.