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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Florida panther population saved by cats from Texas

A male Florida panther walks down Jane’s Scenic Drive in the middle of the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park.
Image © Science/AAAS

In 1995, the population of Florida panthers had dwindled all the way down to just 20 or 25 unhealthy adults. As their numbers decreased, Florida's panther population became more and more inbred, which caused many health problems in the wild cats, including heart defects, low sperm quality, low testosterone levels, low reproduction rates, and lots of parasites.

Finally, conservations made a bold move to save those Florida panthers: They imported eight panthers with very different genes from the state of Texas to mate with the Florida population. Now, years later, the results of that difficult restoration project are in, and researchers say that the new hybrid Florida-Texas panthers are much healthier than they used to be—less inbred, more genetically diverse, and also growing in numbers.

Three Florida panther kittens sampled from the den of female FP94 in Everglades National Park in June 2006.
Image © Science/AAAS

Warren Johnson from the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland, along with colleagues from across the United States, compared genetic data on 591 Florida panthers (collected between 1978 and 2009) in order to reach this conclusion. Their study illustrates the challenges of maintaining populations of large, sometimes man-eating predators around the world, though it also provides some hope for this particular population of Florida panthers.

These Florida panthers, which are also sometimes referred to as pumas, cougars, or mountain lions, are the last surviving panther subspecies in eastern North America.

But now, after mixing those Florida panthers' genes with the genes of the eight female panthers from Texas, Johnson and his colleagues say that the new population of hybrid panthers in Florida has tripled in size. They also suggest that the panthers' overall fitness and survival rates have improved since the wild cats mixed their genes with the Texas population.