By Nan Mattingly, CREW Trust Volunteer
FWC is learning more about Florida panthers through their FLM focused research
As we explained in our latest blog post, a primary objective of capturing and radio collaring Florida panthers and bobcats is to identify a mysterious disease affecting our felids, feline leukomyelopathy disorder (FLM).
When a cat is captured, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) biologists look to obtain tissue samples to study in an effort to advance our knowledge of FLM. Combined with trail cameras illuminating documentation on panthers and bobcats, tissue samples may help to unlock the key to this devastating disease.
The most notable symptom of FLM is rear leg weakness or even paralysis. Trail cameras have captured some heartbreaking examples of cats and kittens showing difficulty walking. Severe cases of FLM can result in death. Check out the FWC website (myfwc.com) to see videos of a panther and a bobcat demonstrating that rear-leg weakness.
In Collier County, FLM was first discovered around the National Audubon lands known as Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in 2018. Since then, cases of FLM have been documented in several south Florida counties. Testing has focused on toxins such as rodenticide, infectious disease and nutritional deficiencies but the mystery hasn’t yet been solved.
Why is this investigation of the causes of FLM urgent? The Florida panther underwent a severe decline in population during the 20th century. No reliable numbers exist but it is believed that the panther population was fairly robust at the end of the 19th century, yet by the 1970s the population had almost disappeared, mainly through hunting. In 1973 the Florida panther was declared an endangered species and since then the numbers have grown slowly, reaching the current estimate of approximately 120 to 230.
FLM is only one of the contemporary threats to the panther population. Since most of the remaining panthers live south of the Caloosahatchee River, there’s a distinct geographic limit to the gene pool. With about 1,000 people moving to Florida every day, construction is destroying the panther’s essential warm climate habitats – wetlands, swamps, upland forest, and stands of saw palmetto. In addition, A male panther needs about 200 square miles to establish his own territory. The end result for panthers is increased car fatalities and intraspecies aggression due to a lack of territory. Without wildlife corridors like the CREW lands to connect large swaths of habitat, the panther is finding it more challenging to mate and breed.
Bobcats, too, are susceptible to FLM and can provide valuable data to aid both species, but their population numbers are not as dire as those of the panther for several reasons. For one thing, bobcats are not as fussy about habitat – they can adjust to an urban or suburban environment. In a wild habitat, a bobcat needs a range of five to six miles, but in an urban setting they can be satisfied with only one or two miles. Bobcats are opportunistic carnivores and survive on a wider variety of prey than the panther. They prefer rabbits and rodents but they will also eat small reptiles, birds, feral cats, carrion and eggs. While the Florida panther lives only in the southwest corner of Florida, the bobcat is present in most of the U.S. and in Florida it’s found in all counties except in the Keys.
When we protect our native Florida felids like the panther we in turn preserve their habitat, which benefits many other species – including our own – under the umbrella of their reach. Additionally, the research that the FWC panther team performs paints a broader picture of the Florida panther’s future, closely intertwined in the preservation of our limited natural resources. Panthers require our protection, so that future generations may enjoy the same diverse ecosystems, watersheds, and native environment that has attracted generations of Floridians to live and grow alongside these wild felids. FWC research is key to the survival of Florida’s state animal, the endangered Florida panther, but always remember that your input is incredibly valuable too! Please report panther sightings (and bobcats with FLM symptoms) with a video if you have the where-with-all to do so!