Fifteen years after conservation managers made a desperate move to save the Florida panther from extinction, there’s good news. The Florida panther population has increased, and while the species is still threatened, the panthers have a better chance for survival, reports the University of Florida.
The Florida panther was placed on the endangered species list in 1967. By the 1990’s the panther population was at an all time low of just 25 cats, and were suffering from serious hereditary defects because of extreme inbreeding. Such defects included kinked tails, cowlicked hair, very low sperm count and heart deformations.
As a last effort to save the big cats, conservation managers introduced eight female panthers from Texas into the population. Five of the females bore cubs (all cross bred with Texas/Florida genes) the following year, and the cubs were stronger and more resilient to disease. Now there are over 100 panthers in Florida. While the population needs to grow into a sufficient population of between 500-1000 animals, this was a step in the right direction.
Today, although their habitat is larger than it was in the 1990’s, the Florida panther are confined to a small area close to human settlements in southern Florida. The panthers prefer large areas, and there’s more habitat in central and northern Florida. Male panthers have wandered through the maze of orchards, ranches and roads that lie north of the southern habitat, but females seem too shy to do so, writes Wired Science. Researchers track the animals using radio-transmitter collars with microchips. This research can help policy makers consider the panthers and make legislation regarding protected areas.
Humans will have to keep a close eye on the Florida panther for a long time, ensuring that inter-breeding does not become a problem again. Meanwhile, the panther’s success carries a hopeful message for conserving fragmented populations of endangered animals such as lions and tigers. Moving animals to keep populations genetically healthy may become a cornerstone of saving species.