Florida' Ghost Cat
It's no wonder that the Florida Panther (Puma concolor coryi), a subspecies of mountain lion (Puma concolor) (e.g. wild cat, catamount, or cougar), has the reputation as a ghost of the forest. It's so nimble that it can slink through brambles and thorns without touching them. Biologists are fortunate if they can capture photographic evidence of it from infrared trail cameras they've diligently maintained for years.
Wild Florida Panthers have a mere 12-year lifespan and usually produce two to three kittens per litter. In fact, most humans will never come across this ghost cat unless they happen to hit one on the road. It's the most endangered cat in North America. Without the Endangered Species Act, this mammal would surely be nothing more than a ghost; only 25-50 adults were alive in 1995. Today, conservation efforts have helped, but the ghost cat's chance of survival isn't out of the woods yet.
Despite its minuscule population, it's officially Florida's state animal. How would you tell a Florida Panther apart from any other kind of tawny-colored, North American panther? The Florida Panther's appearance includes:
- broad, flat skull
- arched nasal bones
- cowlick (raised spots of hair) on the middle back
- kink making a right angle at tail's end
Unlike a true ghost, the Florida Panther needs sustenance. The vast majority of their diet needs to consist of larger mammals. An adult should eat the equivalent of one feral hog or white-tailed deer per week to stay healthy. A female with kittens needs twice that -- which is difficult since most native lands have been developed and don't support major groups of large prey. However, a hungry Florida panther will take what meal it can get. Here's what may be on the menu instead: rabbits, rats, alligators, armadillos, and raccoons.
Threat from Humans
As far back as the 1500s, this cat inhabitated the entire southeastern region of the United States, areas that humans later tamed: Alabama, South Carolina, and even into Tennessee. But massive habitat loss was too powerful to overcome. Their original territory was cleared for houses. Settlers misunderstood the panthers and were fearful. In 1832, a bounty for the Florida Panther was established. The panthers left fought with other panthers over territorial boundaries, sometimes killing each other. Inbreeding increased resulting in weak, sickly kittens.
By the 1950s, a dangerous push initiated from urban sprawl decimated farm lands and forests. Instead of deer, Florida Panthers started eating more raccoons which were poisoned with mercury (which they had ingested through diets heavy in fish). Furthermore, a major obstacle to survival is that ghost cats get used to the sounds of vehicles, ending up as roadkill -- much to the dismay of hard-working conservationists and biologists.
Today, the Florida Panther's habitat is centered north of the Everglades in and around Big Cypress National Preserve, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, and public and private lands in southwestern Florida. They thrive in uplands like areas of hardwood trees or mixed swamps where they can hunt prey mostly at night and stay invisible under the cover of brush. While a rogue male may look for territories outside of this area, it's uncommon to find them far from southwestern Florida, for this is where their only breeding grounds now lie.
How will the Florida Panther move on from being just another endangered species? According to Endangered.org, "Eight female Texas cougars were brought into the genetically at-risk panther population in 1995 to reinvigorate the gene pool and reduce congenital abnormalities. This action under the Endangered Species Act was the real turning point in preventing the extinction of these amazing cats and building their population size from 50-70 panthers to 100-160 today." Since 1995, numbers have easily quadrupled.
BigCatRescue.org cites another looming problem: "While there is widespread popular support for panther reintroduction in Florida, some people are still concerned about introducing the cat to new areas, fearing the panther will bring with it restrictions on private property uses, potential damage to livestock and pets, and a possible threat to human safety."
How can you help?
- Florida residents can purchase Protect the Panther license plates.
- Dedicate school projects to the panther to increase public awareness.
- Write to politicians and agency administrators.
Sadly, the Florida Panther is undeniably close to becoming a true ghost of the forest. Its species may vanish from this earth forevermore. But your efforts and those of dedicated conservationists offer a glimmer of hope for their plight of survival.