Numbers of Florida panthers reached their lowest in the early 1970s, when there were as few as 20 individuals in the wild. Left to battle against an ever-shrinking habitat with an utterly depleted genetic stock, their future was looking pretty bleak.
Forty-five years later, there’s good news for this subspecies, and it comes in the form of cute kitten photos.
Over the past few years, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) have set up numerous camera traps across the land north of the Caloosahatchee River in southwest Florida hoping to photograph the panthers (also known as mountain lions, pumas, or cougars).
In previous years, they have caught shots of numerous male panthers and a single female panther. The latest set of cameras has now captured photographs of a nursing mother and at least two kittens. According to the FWC Chairman, Brian Yablonski, this indicates they have reached "a major milestone" in their recovery.
A kitten in the early hours of the morning, closely following its mother. Florida Fish and Wildlife
“This is good news for Florida panther conservation,” said Kipp Frohlich, deputy director of the FWC’s Division of Habitat and Species Conservation. “Until now, we only had evidence of panthers breeding south of the Caloosahatchee. These pictures of a female with kittens indicate there are now panthers breeding north of the river.”
There are now approximately 120-230 adult panthers living in Florida. While that’s still not many, these photographs suggest their breeding range is expanding. The dramatically low numbers of Florida panthers in the 1970s meant there were high rates of inbreeding, causing genetic defects that have led to widespread health problems and weakened immune systems among the cats. Oddly, this inbreeding also led to many of the panthers having cowlicks, kinked tails, and the males having one undescended testicle.
“Early this year, the cameras captured images of a female that appeared to be nursing,” added Darrell Land, FWC panther team leader. “For many years, the Caloosahatchee River has appeared to be a major obstacle to northward movement of female panthers. This verification of kittens with the female demonstrates panthers can expand their breeding territory across the river naturally.”
Hopefully, if the cats' range is expanding they will come across other panthers to give the genetic pool a good mix up.
Another little one swooshes past the camera. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
A mother catches a glimpse of the camera. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
The mother panther walks down the remote trail just a few steps ahead of its offspring. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission