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The Florida panther: Facts and figures

• The Florida panther was declared the state animal in 1982, chosen over the manatee and the alligator by a vote of the state's schoolchildren.

• They were on the original endangered species list, issued in 1967.

• When the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973, there were only 20 to 30 panthers left. Some state officials even believed they were extinct.

• The World Wildlife Fund hired a Texas puma hunter, Roy McBride, to travel to Florida in 1972 and find out if there were any panthers left. He found signs of panthers, and in 1973 captured one near Lake Okeechobee, a gaunt, tick-infested 9-year-old female.

• The average lifespan of a Florida panther in the wild is 12 years.

• Males average 130 pounds and measure 6 to 8 feet with the tail, while females average 80 pounds and measure 5 to 7 feet including the tail.

• Bobcats, which are far more common in the wild and more widely seen across the state, are often confused with panthers. But the Florida bobcat is much smaller than the Florida panther — in fact, it's not much larger than a domestic cat.

• Since 1990, much of the state's research into the Florida panther is financed by sales of the Florida panther specialty license plate. The plate brought in more than $1.3 million in 2008, the year with the most recent figures.

• Their scientific name is Puma concolor coryi, a name that honors the first scientist to describe the Florida panther, Charles Cory.

• Panthers are nocturnal animals. They sleep during the day and hunt, travel and mate at night.

• Scientists first began capturing panthers and attaching radio collars to them in 1981. Using signals from the radio collars they can study their movements. However, scientists do not have collars on all panthers. Currently 28 have them.

• In the 29 years since the panther-capture program began, only one panther has died during a capture. The tranquilizer dart intended to put the animal to sleep hit an artery, delivering the dosage too quickly. Controversy over the death nearly ended the program. Meanwhile, the animal was stuffed and put on display in Tallahassee. It currently stands near the entrance to the State Library of Florida.

• McBride still tracks panthers, now for the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He calculates the panther population not only by studying the data from radio-tracking signals, but also from looking for signs they leave behind in the landscape: tracks, scat, scrapes and scratches on trees.

• Florida panthers do not roar. They do make sounds, though: chirps, peeps, whistles, purrs, moans, screams, growls and hisses.

• Their preferred diet consists of deer, wild hogs and some smaller animals, such as raccoons and armadillos.

• Panthers stalk their prey, moving in quietly. Although they do not chase down the deer and wild hogs they eat, they can spring as far as 15 feet for the kill. Panthers usually kill large prey by a bite to the back of the neck, severing the spinal cord.

• Panther kittens are reared by their mother in a den. The average litter size is two kittens.

• When kittens' eyes first open they are blue. Young cats' fur is spotted, and they have five rings on their tails. As they get older their eyes darken, and their fur and tail become more of a uniform tawny shade. There are no Florida panthers that are black.

• The mother leaves the kittens alone in the den to go out and forage for food. After making a kill, she will eat as much as she can and will return to the den to nurse her kittens.

• When the kittens are about 2 months old, they begin to tag along with their mother when she hunts. By 9 to 12 months they are catching small prey on their own, such as raccoons and armadillos.

Sources: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Friends of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge

Still Florida panthers

In the early 1990s Florida panthers were suffering from genetic problems that could have doomed the species. So in 1995, the state imported eight female Texas cougars to breed with the panthers. The genetic diversity was refreshed and the population boomed. The cougars were removed from the wild by 2003. The original kittens produced by the crossbreeding are considered Florida panthers and therefore fall under the Endangered Species Act just like purebred ones. The reason: Historically, back when panthers roamed the Southeast, the Florida panther subspecies interbred with the Texas subspecies.

The Florida panther: Facts and figures 04/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 17, 2010 7:48pm]
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