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05/29/14 1:21 PM

The Florida panther emerges from the border of extinction

The Florida panther lives in the South east of United States.
The Florida panther lives in the South east of United States.

The Florida panther is still alive, it got over huge problems, it was on the brink of extinction and now is back thanks to a genetic management program. This light brown coloured panther used to roamed the southeaster United States but it's massive hunting since 1832 and the destruction and fragmentation of their suitable habitat by livestock and agriculture isolated them in The Big Cypress Swamp by the middle of the 20th century. This process comes along with inbreeding, genetic impoverishment, loss of fitness and increase of illness, and in the last stage, visible and invisible malformations.

There only remains about 20-30 cats by 1980, when they entered a genetic bottleneck and researches predicted that they would be extinct in two decades. This seemed to be the end of their story. However, scientists tried to set up an inbreeding program but some of the mails they captured had no testicles. A research published in Science in 2010 explains that in the 90's, more than the 80% of males had one or no descendent testes, many suffered from potentially fatal birth defects like holes in their harts. Furthermore, they had to deal with a high load of parasites and infectious disease pathogens.

At this point, scientist tried another approach to save the also called Southern puma in 1995, rendering what in other time was a natural circumstance: the arrival of strangers pumas from other territories of United States who enriched the locals genetic diversity. In this case eight female pumas from Texas, that belonged to another sub specie of puma, were moved into the area and mated Florida pumas, breeding kittens of mixed linage. The new panthers brought with them different gene versions, which help counteract two negative side effects of small population size: reduced genetic variation and inbreeding.

Three of the Texas cats died before they could breed, but the others produced at least two litters each.  As a consequence, with the time the population tripled. Between 1995 and 2007, the number and density of panthers in the southern Big Cypress National Preserve  (2174 km2) increased eightfold from 3 (0.14 pnathers/100 km2) to 25 (1.15 cats/100 km2), says the research, lead by Warren E. Johnson at the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity of the National Cancer Institute. Furthermore, they keep increasin until 100 or 160 pumas, the upper average that the available territory can sustain. As for the new generations, they had significantly higher survival,  genetic heterozygosity doubled, and inbreeding problems declined significantly. Moreover, the 'pure blood' kittens disappeared in 2005.

Dr. Robert C. Lacy, a population geneticist with the Chicago Zoological Society, who is involved in World Conservation Union studies, said to the New York Times that the Texas cougars had probably contributed 20 percent to 30 percent of the genetic material now in the Florida panther population, slightly above the initial goal of the program, but not high enough to cause problems.

But, unfortunately, other problems arrived to the Florida panther population. There was detected the presence of the feline immunodeficiency virus, which increased 16 to 80% from 1995 to 2002. After five documented deaths in 2003 the animals were caught and received vaccines.  Although not explicitly implicated in clinical disease in free-ranging pumas, this infection may predispose individuals to other diseases due to low lymphocyte numbers.

Besides, there is another issue to face: the lack of suitable areas for this animals. The Big Cypress Swamp encompasses two million acres but it only can support only 100 or so panthers.  It is said that the population needs to climb to at least 300 to be self-sustaining, said Roelke, who now works for Science Applications International Corporation. Instead, once the panther population hit 110, it reached a plateau. Scientist considers that what have should be done is starting a colony expanding their territory, across the river. Some males have cross the border but no females took the same path so there is no possibility of growth.

The fact is that they are lonely animals with big territories. An adult males may range over an area of 260 Km2, overlap with females, which area range is between 76 and 86 km2 area. Florida panthers can live up to between 12-15 years in the wild. Their coat is tawny brown on the back and pale gray underneath. They reach a length of 2.15 m from their nose to the tip of their tail, stand approximately 60 to 70 cm at the shoulder and their weight average is around 54.5 kg.  Female panthers are considerably smaller with 34 kg and length of 1.85 m.  Panthers are strictly carnivores and their diet consist mainly of feral hog, white-tailed deer, raccoon, and armadillo.

Scientist claims for policies to preserves the panther territory to avoid the increases of habitat loss, to built tunnels for hiding highways with the aim of enable routes to connect territories and avoid car crashes. Moreover, they want to create programs to look after the persistent inbreeding and the pray maintenance in order to preserve this animal.

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