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A Florida panther. Photo by Larry W. Richardson, USFWS.

Florida panther

Puma concolor coryi

  • Taxon: Mammal
  • Breeding Range: South Florida
  • Status: Endangered

The Florida panther is a subspecies of Puma concolor (also known as mountain lion, cougar, or puma) and represents the only known breeding population of puma in the eastern United States. In 1967, the Department of the Interior listed the Florida panther as an endangered subspecies. Since then, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has worked closely with the state of Florida, as well as other federal agencies and private partners to make significant progress towards achieving recovery.

Under the current Recovery Plan, established in 2008, the Service will consider delisting the panther when three populations of at least 240 individuals each (excluding dependent-aged kittens) have been established, and sufficient habitat to support these populations is secured in the long-term. These recovery goals cannot be met without establishing additional populations outside of southern Florida, requiring support from private landowners.

In 2013, the Service formed a Florida Panther Recovery Implementation Team consisting of members representing the Service, National Park Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and other stakeholders, with a mandate to prioritize and facilitate management and research activities that are crucial to the achieving the recovery goals identified in the 2008 Recovery Plan.

Three young Florida panther kittens in a den with bright blue eyes
Florida panther kittens in a den. Photo by David Shindle.

Appearance

An adult Florida panther is unspotted and typically tan in overall coloration, but may be darker brown to rust-colored along the midline of the back. The underside is dull white or buff-colored. Whereas the tip of the tail, back of the ears, and sides of the muzzle are blackish, there has never been a melanistic (black) puma documented in North or South America.

Florida panther kittens are gray with dark brown or blackish spots and five bands around the tail. The spots gradually fade as the kittens grow older and are almost unnoticeable by the time they are six months old. Mature male panthers examined in the wild in Florida since 1978 have weighed from 102 to 160 pounds and measured nearly seven-feet from nose to the tip of the tail. Females were considerably smaller, with a weight range of 50 to 115 pounds and measuring about six feet. Panthers are wide-ranging, secretive, and occur at low densities.

Habitat

Panthers require large, contiguous areas of suitable habitat to meet their social, reproductive, and energetic needs. Panther habitat selection is related to prey availability, which means they select habitats that make prey vulnerable to stalking and capturing. Dense understory vegetation provides some of the most important feeding, resting, and denning cover for panthers.

Telemetry monitoring and ground tracking indicate that panthers select forested habitats, marsh shrub swamps, and prairie grasslands with agricultural lands and other habitat types used in proportion to their availability.

Cabbage palms emerging from a dry grassland
Wet prairie habitat at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Josh O’Connor, USFWS.

Diet

Florida panthers are carnivores, which means they only eat meat. They primarily eat white-tailed deer and wild hogs, but smaller mammals such as raccoons, armadillos, and rabbits are also an important part of their diet. Panthers are opportunistic predators and unfortunately they will also prey upon unsecured livestock and pets.

historical range

Historically, this subspecies occurred throughout the southeastern United States from Arkansas and Louisiana eastward across Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and parts of South Carolina. Today, the panther is presently restricted to less than five percent of its historical range in a single breeding population in southern Florida. The panther population size within the occupied breeding range south of Caloosahatchee River has increased from approximately 20 in the early 1970s to an upper bound of approximately 230 adult and subadult panthers in 2015. (These population numbers do not represent a complete or true population estimate and do not included newborn kittens or older kittens that are traveling with their dams.) However, the panther continues to face numerous threats due to an increasing human population and development in panther habitat that negatively impacts recovery.

More than a century ago, natural genetic exchange occurred between the Florida panther and other contiguous populations of Puma concolor. This exchange, known as gene flow, occurred as individuals dispersed among populations and bred. Gene flow helped maintain a genetic variation and a healthy population of Florida panthers by reducing the probability of inbreeding.

However, beginning with early European colonization and continuing through the 19th Century, the panther population began to decline and became geographically isolated from other puma populations, eliminating gene flow. The combination of a lack of gene flow and the small isolated nature of the population resulted in increased levels of inbreeding in panthers that subsequently had a negative impact on genetic variation, survival rates, and overall fitness of individuals.

If action was not taken to address the lack of gene flow, scientists feared that this genetic bottleneck would lead to the eventual extinction of the Florida panther. Between 1991 and 1994, biologists convened three workshops to discuss the genetic health of the Florida panther population. Experts in the fields of genetics, conservation biology, captive breeding, and panther biology participated. Scientists concluded that some means of restoring a level of gene flow to the population was critical to improving the genetic health of the panther and its long-term prospect for recovery.

A genetic restoration plan was implemented in 1995 with the release of eight female pumas from Texas into Florida panther habitat in southern Florida. Texas pumas (P. c. stanleyana) were the closest extant puma population to Florida and the intent of this plan was to mimic the gene flow that historically occurred between these subspecies. Five of the eight Texas pumas produced a total of at least 20 kittens. None of the original eight Texas pumas remain in the wild population today; five died from various causes and the remaining three were removed from the wild and placed in captivity after they produced a sufficient number of offspring. Subsequent analyses have already documented the beneficial impacts of genetic restoration on the genetic health of the population as well as the coinciding increase in panther abundance since 1995.

Florida panther caught on a trail camera using a fallen tree as a scratching post
An adult Florida panther uses a tree as a scratching post at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS.

Current range

Recovery efforts to-date have successfully contributed to a significant increase in the panther population, which now occupies most available habitat south of Caloosahatchee River. Currently, the only known breeding population of panthers is south of the Caloosahatchee River. However, in November 2016 the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Panther Team collected strong evidence of a female Florida panther north the river. This is the first evidence of a wild female panther north of the river since 1973. Male panthers continue to periodically disperse out of the breeding range and have been confirmed as far north as Georgia.

Southeastern Wildlife Refuges that provide habitat

Living with panthers

Florida panthers are reclusive and rarely seen by people. They normally live in remote, undeveloped areas. However, as the number of people in southern Florida grows, there is an increased chance of an encounter with a Florida panther. This brochure by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission contains some guidelines to help you live safely in Florida panther country.

Conservation challenges

Potential panther habitat throughout the Southeast continues to be affected by urbanization, residential development, road construction, conversion to agriculture, and mining. Land use planning that takes into account the habitat requirements of Florida panthers continues to be a challenge for recovery. Additionally, panther mortality resulting from vehicle collisions threatens the potential for population expansion.

Florida panther sitting in thick green vegetation as if it's posing for a photo
An adult male Florida panther in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. Photo by David Shindle.

Recovery

The recovery goal is to achieve viability of the Florida panther to a point where it can be reclassified from endangered to threatened, and then removed from the Federal list of endangered and threatened species.

The current Recovery Plan establishes that the Service will consider delisting the panther when three populations of at least 240 individuals each (excluding dependent-aged kittens) have been established and sufficient habitat to support these populations is secured.

The panther depends upon habitat of sufficient quantity, quality, and spatial configuration for long-term persistence. Range expansion and reintroduction of additional populations are recognized as essential for recovery. Similarly, fostering greater public understanding and support is necessary to achieve panther conservation and recovery. Public support and developing incentives for private landowners that retain and manage panther habitat are both critical to achieve recovery. Political and social issues will invariably be some of the most challenging aspects of panther recovery.

Download the complete Florida Panther Recovery Plan (revised November 1, 2008.)

Partnerships, research and projects

Our partners

Projects

  • Interagency Panther Response Plan: guides how USFWS, FWC, NPS handle panther/human interactions and the appropriate response based on the circumstances of the interaction.
  • South Florida Deer Research Project: to gain a better understanding of deer ecology in the unique South Florida environment, including how water levels, habitat differences, predation and hunting impact deer population dynamics. Another goal is to develop a monitoring technique that can provide reliable estimates of deer densities in South Florida habitats. Research sites consist of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Bear Island and North Addition Land Units of Big Cypress National Preserve.
  • Payment for Ecosystem Services Project
  • Providing technical assistance to FWC’s panther capture and population monitoring efforts
  • Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens: provides temporary housing and convalescence for injured or orphaned panthers removed from the wild
A family of Florida panthers scurries into the darkness
A Florida panther family. Photo by David Shindle.

How you can help

Drive slowly in panther country

Panther activity is greatest between dusk and dawn, so when driving in panther country, be mindful and alert. Slow down and increase your distance between other cars. This allows you time to react.

Report panther sightings and interactions

If you see a Florida panther and can collect evidence such as pictures of the animal or its tracks, please share the information with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Reporting your observations can help biologists address panther conservation needs by identifying the areas used by these large cats.

To report a wildlife/human interaction contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s wildlife hotline: 1-888-404-FWCC (3922).

Aid injured and orphaned panthers

The Florida Panther Fund was established by The Wildlife Foundation of Florida to aid in the recovery of injured or orphaned Florida panthers, as well as other panther conservation needs. The fund is an important resource that gives the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission flexibility to deal with rare, unplanned, and non-budgeted events. Visit the Help Injured Panthers Return to the Wild website.

Support panther research

Florida panther research and management conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is funded almost entirely through the Florida Panther Research and Management Trust Fund. This fund receives its monies from the purchase and annual renewal of the Protect the Panther specialty license plate. Tag holders give an annual $25.00 donation into the fund when they renew their registrations. Visit the Protect the Panther license plate website to learn more.

Subject matter experts

Want to learn more from our biologists? Contact one of our subject matter experts.

Designated critical habitat

Because the Florida panther was listed prior to the 1978 amendments to the Endangered Species Act, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior has the discretion whether to designate critical habitat. A challenge to that discretion relative to panthers was upheld in Federal appeals court as recently as 2012. If at any time in the future we determine that designating critical habitat is in the best interest of the Florida panther, we will proceed accordingly without delay.

A Florida panther on a sandy trail in a forest
An adult male Florida panther at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by David Shindle.

Historic news

Federal Register notices

The following Federal Register documents were automatically gathered by searching the Federal Register Official API with this species’ scientific name ordered by relevance. You can conduct your own search on the Federal Register website.

  • We're sorry but an error occurred. Visit the Federal Register to conduct your own search.

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