Before widespread development by humans, panthers in Florida were abundant. By the late 1980s, there were only about 20-30 left. These poor animals were inbred, and genetic health problems such as kinked tails, heart conditions, and undescended testicles ensued.
An untested emergency measure was undertaken to save them from extinction. In 1995, eight female cougars were transported from Texas, and deposited in Florida panther territory. Scientists did not know how the Texas cougars would adapt from their home desert environment to Florida with its rain and swamplands. They also didn’t know if they would mate with the Florida panthers on the verge of extinction.
Very fortunately, five of those females became pregnant and gave birth to cross-bred kittens. The other three didn’t make it. One was killed on a highway, another was shot and killed, and the third died giving birth. The kittens born from the five survivors have reproduced and contributed to somewhat of a revival of the species, although with genes from another subspecies. The intermingling has produced good results, with the Florida panther population now up to 100 – 110. These panthers no longer show the same genetic problems.
A sustainable population is believed to be about 500-1,000, meaning a population that could survive without human intervention. However, so much of Florida’s land has been developed, there isn’t much panther habitat remaining. There is so little their current population is at the maximum that can be supported by the limited space. So though the number of panthers and their health has improved, there is the problem of a lack of wild habitat for them.
Scientists continue monitoring the population with radio collars, and by analyzing remains to determine causes of death. The panthers are still in danger from car accidents, poaching, disease, and lack of habitat. Eventually, the same problem of interbreeding will take place simply because the population size is still too small. So cats from other regions might have to be introduced again. Additionally, the legislative system will need to create designated new conservation habitats for them.
Image Credit: Stephen B Calvert Clariosophic