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Florida panthers and bobcats are the only two wild cats found in Florida and panthers are by far the larger of the two. This section describes what panthers look like, compares them to their western counterparts, shows where panthers formerly and currently live and describes their evolutionary history.

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Range of the Puma

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The puma, of which panthers are a subspecies, once had the largest range of any land mammal in the Americas. This large cat lived as far north as the Yukon in Canada, with its range extending all the way to the southern tip of South America. It was well adapted to a wide range of environments from coniferous forests to deserts, mountains and rain forests.

Today in the U.S., puma are found in about half of their original range, primarily in the sparsely populated mountain and desert regions of western states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming)

The only puma population east of the Mississippi River are Florida panthers.

Like other wildlife, puma have four requirements: food, cover, water and space. Food for puma includes large prey, most commonly deer, as well as smaller animals like raccoons. Cover can be anything that provides shelter from the elements for resting, for mothers to conceal their young or vegetation and objects that conceal puma while stalking prey. Water is rarely a problem for puma, except for individuals living in the driest parts of the western U.S. However, water affects the puma’s habitat and prey and has an indirect influence on their movements or the areas they use. Lastly, space is needed to ensure other survival requirements can be met, mates can be located and young adult puma can establish their territories.

Figure 1: Map of North America showing Puma and Panther Ranges North American puma range is outlined in black and covers the western part of United States and Canada. Florida panther range is outlined in pink and covers the southeastern United States. Known panther occurrences shown as blue circles mainly south of Orlando, Florida and most panther breeding occurs in the orange-shaded area in south Florida around the Everglades.


Range of the Florida Panther

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In the southeastern U.S., panthers formerly ranged throughout Florida, as far west as Arkansas and as far north as South Carolina. Today only about 120-230 adult panthers exist, primarily in southwest Florida. Young males in search of their own territories have been documented in other parts of Florida but most of the breeding population remains restricted to south Florida, below the Caloosahatchee River. Conversely, it is not uncommon to find male panthers throughout the Florida peninsula, and one male ventured into western Georgia where he was shot and killed in 2008.

Figure 2: Map of known occurrence dataOccurrence data (orange circles) show that panthers range from the extreme southern portions of the peninsula into Central Florida up to Orlando and occasionally further north. Although there are a few female panthers north of Lake Okeechobee, most females are found south of the lake and that is where most reproduction occurs.


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Scientists classify the biological world into a series of categories beginning with the broadest and ending with the most specific. This classification is called taxonomy.

The Florida panther is classified as:

Kingdom - AnimaliaPhylum - ChordataSubphylum - VertebrataClass - MammaliaOrder - CarnivoraFamily - FelidaeSubfamily - FelinaeGenus - PumaSpecies - concolorSubspecies - coryi

The Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) is one of more than 25 subspecies of puma (Puma concolor). Historically, distinctions between subspecies were made based on physical characteristics but today there are new tools such as DNA analyses. Combining the use of physical characteristics with DNA analyses to help define subspecies is an evolving process. It is especially difficult when dealing with a species as wide-ranging as the puma. There is inconsistency in the total number of puma subspecies. Various books and other sources identify the number of subspecies as anywhere from six to 30.

The subspecies name coryi comes from naturalist and hunter Charles Barney Cory, who first described the Florida panther as a subspecies of cougar in 1896 in his book Hunting and Fishing in Florida. He named it Felis concolor floridana, but floridana had already been used for a subspecies of bobcat so scientists changed the name to Felis concolor coryi.

Until 1993, the cougar was classified in the genus Felis along with the domestic cat, the ocelot and 27 other species. In 1993 the cougar was reassigned to the genus Puma.

A study on puma genetics published in 2000 suggested that all North American puma became extinct during the late Pleistocene era some 10,000 years ago. Subsequently, puma recolonized the continent after the last ice age and all North American puma are believed to be comprised of a single subspecies according to the study’s authors. This study further suggested that only six subspecies of puma, instead of 30, should be recognized range-wide throughout North and South America. No consensus opinion has emerged from mammologists, taxonomists and other scientists on whether to accept this paper’s findings. Even if the scientific classification of the Florida panther were to change it could still be protected under the Endangered Species Act as an endangered distinct population segment.

Figure 1: Florida panther first described by Charles B. Cory in 1896.


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The panther’s scientific name is Puma concolor coryi and concolor means one color in Latin. Puma adults are a uniform tan color with lighter fur on their lower chests, belly and inner legs. Shades of individual animals may vary considerably from grayish to reddish to yellowish. This uniform color conceals them effectively in a variety of settings including the open range. Florida panthers and all other puma subspecies are never black.

Young and Goldman in their 1946 book "The Puma: Mysterious American Cat" noted that the color of pumas often matches the color of the deer, their primary prey (Figure 1).

Puma kittens are spotted, which helps to camouflage them in the shadows of their den. These spots fade as they approach maturity at the end of their first year. Pumas have long, round tails (nearly two-thirds the length of their head and body). Tails help balance the body, especially during ambush pounces on prey.

Male panthers are larger than female panthers. They weigh from 100 to 160 pounds; female panthers weigh from 70 to 100 pounds. Panthers vary in height at the shoulder from 24 to 28 inches and measure from 6 to 7.2 feet from nose to tip of the tail.


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The skull of the Florida panther is distinct from other subspecies of puma. It is relatively broad and flat with highly arched nasal bones, giving the profile a rounded appearance as it transitions from the forehead to the tip of the nose (Figure 2 Florida Panther on the right - Non-Florida on left).

The Florida panther often has a right angle kink at the end of its tail, a whorl of hair or a "cowlick" in the middle of its back, and white flecks in the fur on its neck and back. The kink in the tail and the whorl of hair is thought to be the result of inbreeding within a small population and are not defining characteristics of the subspecies. Kinked tails and cowlicks occur less frequently in the population following genetic management that began in 1995. Cowlicks have been reported in other subspecies of puma, but in much lower frequencies. The white flecks in the coat on the neck and back of panthers are caused by tick bites.

Figure 2: Skull Morphology: "Roman Nose"

Florida panthers have arched nasel bones, sometimes referred to as a "Roman nose"Nasals are higher (or nearly so) than rest of skull when viewed in profileMore easily distinguished on bare skull

 


The first true or modern cat (in the genus Proailurus) appeared around 30 million years ago. Some 10 million years later, a descendant of this first cat (in the genus Pseudaelurus) gave rise to two main branches of the felid family tree: the nimravids, large animals with huge canine teeth, and the felids, smaller, faster animals. Commonly referred to as saber-toothed cats, the nimravids occurred in what is now Florida until the late Pleistocene, about 10,000 years ago, before they went extinct. Meanwhile the other branch of the felid tree continued to thrive. The fossil record reveals that jaguars, American lions, cheetahs, lynx, puma and ocelots occurred in Florida alongside saber-toothed cats until about 10,000 years ago.

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Modern puma have been around for about 3 million years and they, along with bobcats, are the remaining wild cats still living in Florida.