Florida Panther As the deer fed at the marsh’s edge, it’s tail flickering as it nibbled tender and ripe green growth. Then the nervous animal pauses in it’s feeding and lifted its head to listen. Whatever hint of danger the deer had sensed was ignored once the threat could not be located. It stamped a forefoot, lowered its head and began to eat once more, this deer had failed to detect a Florida panther that was downwind (going into the wind) crouched low in the underbrush. Amber eyes however, estimated the distance between himself and the deer.
Then at the right moment attacked the deer, with bounds at over twenty feet at a time the panther exploded out of the underbrush pouncing on the deer and forcing it to the ground. Within fifteen seconds that panther stood breathing heavily over his unfortunate victim of life and death. This scene has been going on for many years, the battle of predator and prey, but know the new predators are humans almost virtually wiping out the entire population leaving only an estimated 30 – 50 Florida panthers left. Should the environmental leaders of Florida protect the Florida panther? The people of Florida think so, and that is why they named it their state animal. This panther is one of about thirty subspecies of Felis concolor. The subspecies, coryi is one of the rarest and most endangered animals in the world.
Panthers, also called pumas, cougars, screamers, and mountain lions, once ranged from the southern end of South America into Canada. In appearance the Florida panther is similar to other panthers, however this rare subspecies has several distinct characteristics such as, white flecks on the shoulders, a cowlick on the back (a cowlick is a tuft of hair that cannot easily be flattened) and a crook in the tail. This is formed by the last three bones in the tail, that is bent forming the stump on the end. Panthers have an average length of six to nine feet from the nose to the tip of tail, stand up to twenty-eight inches in height, and weigh from fifty to one hundred-thirty pounds. These panthers are solitary and territorial animals and seldomly live together except for mating season. Following an approximate 90 day gestation period the females are more sedentary once the usual two to three kittens are born, but more than one kitten rarely survives and that is another reason for the low panther count.
Florida panthers live in three main areas, Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve (just North of the Everglades) and the Fakahatchee Strand which is a dense water downed jungle West of the Big Cypress. A cypress is a long, thin stretch of tropical hardwood swaps. In the Everglades National Park Florida panthers are most concentrated in an area called the Hole in the Donut. Although there are some panthers living in the Everglades the Big Cypress Swap is more to their liking and because of this there are more panthers in the Big Cypress than in the Everglades. Since the majority of the panther population is in the Big Cypress, hunters are upset with some of these efforts such as the ban of all hunting dogs, all-terrain vehicles and airboats in the preserve which are to help aid the survival of the panther.
Because unlike the Everglades where hunting of deer and boar is allowed, in the Big Cypress it is not, and the Big Cypress is fully stocked with both of those animals. Tom Logan who is chief of wildlife research for the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission stated that civilization is the main threat to the survival of the panther. The panthers are being wiped out along with their homeland that is being surrounded by new and upcoming developments. Specifically, the highway is the biggest threat to the Florida panther. Nine panthers have been killed in the last eight years. Plans to complete Interstate – 75 by making it a two-lane toll road called Alligator Alley were put on hold because of the community’s concern for the panther.
Floridians are also looking into building a panther safe tunnel going under busy throughways for the animal to make safe crossings. They are confident the panther will choose the tunnel over the road out of natural fear. The Florida Panther Interagency Committee has developed a recovery plan for panthers that includes creating a breeding colony in zoos and facilities .. .” Places such as White Oak Plantation in Northeastern Florida, which is a private breeding center for rare animals is just a small part of the community helping to try and bring the panthers population into a stable level. Scientists are now using techniques for collecting, freezing, and storing panthers’ semen and then artificially inseminating the females to keep the population of panthers increasing. To help with these efforts the Florida Game Commission has supervised more than one hundred cat captures.
Since the project began, the biologists have monitored a total of forty-five animals to create a detailed record of the cats lives and family trees. “The task would be easier if the panther had chosen a more remote area to make its last stand. It survives in the wet back country of the South Florida interior because much of the area was nearly inaccessible until recent times. Scientists rely on evidence such as scats (droppings), scrapes (small mounds of dirt marked by deposits of droppings and urine), and tracks rather than actual sightings. Through surveillance from the ground and air, scientists have been keeping close tabs on all of the twenty-one panthers currently wearing collars ..
. The only adult female living in Everglades National Park mated with her own son last year because no other males had been around for years. Some of the panther’s main habitats are hardwood hammocks, pinelands, cypress swamps, hardwood swamps, and freshwater marshes. Hardwood hammocks are sometimes described as tree islands. They are small areas found on ground that’s slightly higher than the surrounding landscape.
They typically have rich organic soil and rarely flood or burn. Vegetation is thick and includes thickets of saw palmetto. White-tailed deer are often abundant in hardwood hammocks. In the fall and winter wild hogs feed in hammocks on acorns and saw palmetto berries. Pinelands, in particular pine flatwoods, are the most common natural community throughout Florida and generally occur on flat plateaus with sandy soil. Within the panther’s range are found pine flatwoods as well as the much less common rockland pine, areas of thin soil on top of ridges of limestone.
The Long Pine Key area of Everglades National Park is an example of rockland pine. It is an island surrounded by freshwater marsh. Panthers are known to use the long Pine Key area. Pinelands are usually moist during the rainy season and are sometimes even flooded. Periodic fires are necessary to prevent their transformation to hardwood forests. After fires, new plant growth is particularly attractive to white-tailed deer. Wild hogs may also be present in pinelands.
Vegetation density in pinelands varies from nearly closed to open and almost savanna-like. Cypress swamps consist of two types of cypress, towering bald cypress and shorter pond cypress. Because their seeds can’t germinate under water, Cypress’ require land that is dry for part of the year. Cypress Swamps occur on slightly elevated land in places where lower land is freshwater marshes as well as on slightly lower land in pinelands. They are typically wet for 200-300 days each year.
Within the panther’s range are cypress domes, dwarf cypress forests, and cypress strands (long narrow features). Before it was logged in the 1940’s, Fakahatchee Strand was a cypress forest with huge, centuries-old trees. Today the strand is a dense, mixed hardwood forest. Understory plants are relatively sparse in cypress forests. White-tailed deer are less numerous in cypress-dominated habitats than they are in more varied habitats with marshes, pinelands, prairies, and hammocks. Hardwood swamps occur along rivers in north Florida and in strands along sloughs in south Florida.
Sloughs are broad shallow channels that contain flowing water. They often correspond to linear depressions in the underlying limestone (Florida Natural Area Inventory 1990). In south Florida, hardwood swamps consist of a dense mix of oaks, black gum, willow, cypress, and red maple as well as palms. Within the strand, the soil is very rich, but is usually covered by a few inches to several feet of water. This in combination with the dense forest canopy limits the amount of food available to white-tailed deer. Water also limits the presence of wild hogs in hardwood swamps.
Raccoons and a wide variety of amphibians, reptiles, and birds are found in hardwood swamps. The largest freshwater marsh within the panther’s range is the Everglades. Sawgrass stretches as far as the eye can see interrupted only by occasional hardwood hammocks. The soils are acidic peat and marshes are typically wet about 250 days per year. Flying over the Everglades, Game Commission biologist Chris Belden looked down to see a panther swimming through sawgrass between hardwood hammocks. Freshwater marshes support flocks of wading birds as well as alligators and fish.
During the summer, marshes are important foraging sites for white-tailed deer and wild hogs. Natural light ground fires are started by lightning in the dry season and keep bushes and trees from growing. At one time there was a bounty on the Florida panther. They were hunted as a sport until 1958 and were then included in the first endangered list published in the Federal Register on March 11, 1967. Then in 1979 it became a crime to kill a panther in the state of Florida and then in 1982 school children made the Florida panther the state animal.
The Commissions Florida Panther recovery goals are to prevent the extinction of this animal and to reestablish this subspecies’ old and unoccupied range areas. These goals were assisted in 1983 when the Florida Legislature established the Florida Panther Technical Advisory Council. The commission is firmly committed to take all necessary actions within their given authority to assure recovery for the Florida panther. The panthers are still going to need broad public support and active cooperation among all management. “Civilization is the main threat to the survival of the Florida panther .. “, and so it will be until we learn how to respect these species that occupied the land we take before us. A land that was not ours to take and land we truly do need as bad for survival as these creatures. Animal Science.