When visiting the Everglades, you may come across an alligator, osprey or the occasional swamp rabbit, but the animal that is the ghost of the Everglades is the Florida panther. This large cat is known to be the only breeding population of puma in the eastern part of the United States. As for their appearance, an adult Florida panther is tan in coloration and along its back, the fur can be a rust-colored or darker brown. Its’ additional features consist of a dull white-colored underside with the tip of the tail, sides of its muzzle and back of the ears are black. Although some may think there are black pumas in North America, one has never been documented.
When Florida panthers are kittens, in order to camouflage themselves from predators, their appearance is different. Panther kittens are gray with either black or dark brown spots on their body, and their tail has five bands around it. As they grow, their spots begin to disappear, revealing the tan-colored coat the adults have. At around six months old the spots are barely noticeable. The adult males are on average seven feet long and between 100 to 160 pounds. Whereas females are smaller, weighing at 50-115 pounds and measuring around six feet on average. Their habitat requires large and suitable connected areas to meet their active and reproductive needs. In choosing the habitat, the Florida panther looks for areas where prey will be vulnerable to pursue and capture. Habitats containing thick brush and undergrowth provide panthers with significant resting and feeding spots and places for them to take cover. Researchers have found that forested areas, grasslands, and shrub swamps are generally where panthers select to live. For their diet, Florida panthers are strictly meat eaters and, in their habitats, will eat mostly wild hogs and white-tailed deer. Smaller animals in these areas such as rabbits, armadillos and raccoons are significant as well to their diet. However, panthers are known to be opportunistic hunters, and if given the chance they will prey upon pets and livestock that are unsecured.
The Florida panther stalks through the swamps and hides in the trees; rarely seen by anyone who visits or lives in the area. I for one have never seen one before in the wild, but I have seen them in the past at Wooten’s Airboat Tours and Naples Zoo. Many locals have witnessed them in the wild and captured pictures before watching them disappear into the woods. A few years ago, my dad and brother were driving down State Road 29 at dusk when they saw something suddenly lunge towards them from their right. A Florida panther emerged out of the woods and leaped over the front of the car, landing on its feet on the other side of the highway. Shocked as they were terrified at the occurrence, my dad wanted to make sure the mammal didn’t roam onto the road. He turned the car around and waited on the side of the road until the panther finally ran into the woods before proceeding back to their route.
One of the greatest hazards to the endangered Florida panther is vehicle collisions, which produce threatening results for the expansion of their population. Sadly, with the state of Florida growing at such a high rate, development, road construction and residential expansion are all affecting the panther. This urbanization is causing panthers to be pushed out of their habitats, increasing the likelihood of them being hit and killed by vehicles. Nearly 30 panthers annually are killed by trucks and other vehicles. The recovery for the endangered subspecies is crucial for the survival of the animal.
Back in 2008, the Recovery Plan was established in an attempt to protect and restore the panther population. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to the consideration of delisting the Florida panther from the endangered species list once three populations consisting of 240 beings in each are established. Alas, in order for the Recovery Plan’s goals to be met, there must be additional populations outside of South Florida established. This requires private landowners’ support. Since the Recovery Plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created the Florida Panther Recovery Implementation Team in 2013 to research and prioritize activities that will lead to the achievement of the Recovery Plan’s goals. Thankfully, the Florida panther’s population is growing, but not at a fast rate. As of 2017, it is estimated that there are between 120-230 panthers in the wild compared to 1995 when there were merely 25 adults. Though the population now is on the path to achieving the goals noted in the Recovery Plan, panthers still remain as one of the most threatened mammals in the world. Without the protection of the Endangered Species Act, the Florida panther would be nonexistent. I only hope that one day humans will be able to coexist with the Florida panther without thoughtlessly taking away its habitat.
If you’re driving through South Florida or the Everglades, be prepared to cross through panther zones, and please be aware of your surroundings. Slow down when driving through the zones, as you never know when a Florida panther or its kittens will be waiting to cross the road to the other side. Being respectful towards these animals will help to achieve the goals of the Recovery Plan so panthers can live without the fear of extinction.