Ralph Arwood Photography
DNA analysis shows that at some point in the 20th century there were only 6 Florida Panthers. Now numbering about 120, they are limited to extreme southern Florida.
The near extinction of the Florida Panther resulted from the combination of panther hunting and over hunting of their main food source, the white-tailed deer. In 1832 the Territorial legislature enacts laws providing a bounty on panthers with the amount set by the counties. In 1887 The State of Florida authorizes a $5 bounty for panther scalps.
In 1950 the panther was reclassified as a game animal. In 1958 the panther was given full protection in Florida. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed them as endangered in 1967.
In the 1970’s there was a debate about the Florida Panther. Some thought that the Florida Panthers were extinct; others thought that there were hundreds roaming South Florida. It was all speculation, no one had any data. To resolve this question the World Wildlife Fund asked Roy McBride to hunt for panthers in South Florida. Roy grew up hunting Mountain Lions in West Texas.
In February of 1973 his dogs treed a very old female panther near Fisheating Creek. Over the next several years Roy continued to search and determined that about thirty panthers still lived in South Florida. Over the next ten years the population remained about 30.
Melanie Culver of the University of Arizona and Philip Hedrick of Arizona State University compared DNA samples taken from museum specimens from the 19th century with samples from the 1980s. They found that the late 20th century cats had only one third of the genetic diversity of their 19th century ancestors. Such a dramatic loss of genetic diversity indicates a bottleneck that allowed only six individuals through. Only one maternal lineage made it through the bottleneck. So it’s possible among the six panthers there was only one female.
With such a small number of panthers isolated in South Florida, inbreeding led to multiple problems including heart defects and decreased fertility. A “genetic rescue” was launched in 1995, when eight female pumas from Texas were introduced into the Florida Panther population. Five of the panthers had a total of 20 kittens. The population, now numbering about 120, is genetically much healthier. They have fewer health defects.
Like most people that have seen a Florida panther in the wild, the memory of the first one remains vivid in my mind. Perhaps it is partially the adrenalin afterglow from a day of skydiving, but I think it is more than that. While I remember the panther clearly, I have almost no memory of the parachute jumps that I made that day. That panther has stalked my memory since 1975. It was just after sunset as I was leaving the Kendall Glider port on the eastern edge of the Everglades. The one lane dirt road into the glider port, ran through a sometimes farm field that was overgrown with elephant grass. With out warning the tawny colored cat came out of the grass on the south side of the road about fifty feet ahead of me. He crossed the road in the slow majestic walk of a large feline. He was followed by a tail that seemed to be as long as the road was wide. While he did not appear to be in a hurry, as quickly as he had appeared, he disappeared back in to the elephant grass.
Having just completed my undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Miami, I knew that this was a very special occurrence. I had spent as much of the last four years as possible roaming the South Florida swamps. It had been my goal to photograph all of the plants and animals that live there. In all of that time, I had not even seen the tracks of a Florida Panther, much less a live cat. While that cat continued to roam through my memory, it would be thirty years before I saw another Florida Panther in the wild. During that time a lot of people were working very hard to keep the panthers roaming in South Florida.
Since 2004 I have had the good fortune to work with Deborah Jansen, the panther biologist at the Big Cypress National Preserve. The panthers on the Big Cypress page document some of this work.
In 2007 I started a trail camera study of the panthers that use the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Some of these cats are showcased on the Corkscrew page.
When a Florida Panther is fitted with a tracking collar, either by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist or the Big Cypress biologist, the cat is given an FP number. The first cat was collared in 1981. More than 240 cats have worn tracking collars.
When a panther without an FP or K number is found dead, they are given an UCFP (Uncollared Florida Panther) number. More than 282 panthers have UCFP numbers.
The female panthers brought in from Texas for the genetic restoration project were given TX numbers.
Most of the panthers at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary are un-collared. The ones that we can reliably identify in trail camera photographs we give names.