We have a long history of hating big predatory animals. Given our dependence on farm-raised food, it makes a lot of sense. For a homesteader in the 1800s, that lamb or calf being carried off in a hunter’s jaws could have been the difference between his family being fed or starving. In the light of such stark realities, the decision to put a bullet square between its eyes is a no-brainer.
But nearly 20 years into the new millennium, few of us are still life-or-death dependent on our personal livestock. And we’ve discovered that big predators play an indispensable role in nature’s ordered chaos — one that keep their prey species healthy. After many years of persecution, their absence reverberates throughout the ecosystem, weakening it in ways we could never have foreseen.
Thus, in our new enlightenment, we are now trying to put right what great-grandfather ripped apart by his stubborn insistence on survival. As our prejudice against them wanes (albeit slowly; a habit that is thousands of years old doesn’t just disappear), it is being replaced by a unique mix of fear and fascination. All you have to do is think of sharks, grizzly bears or wolves. You feel that tingle? Me too.
As we seek knowledge of these creatures, it’s inevitable that a fair bit of misinformation, wives’ tales and outright falsehoods get mixed in. After all, they’re deeply mysterious. Since most people in my extended circle know that I have more than a passing interest in these things, I am frequently drawn into conversations regarding them. Some become quite animated. You might even call them arguments.
Which is what I found myself in a few weeks back, when a casual acquaintance told me matter-of-factly that Florida panthers had actually gone extinct 25 years ago. I don’t mind the occasional disagreement, even when they become spirited. This one, though, quickly devolved. Did you ever watch American Chopper and see Paulie and Senior yelling at each other? Like that. Only not throwing stuff.
Since I could not get through to him, I’ll explain it to you instead. If I were being fair, I could give him equal space. But forget that. Let him get his own column someplace.
Like most ridiculous ideas, his has a kernel of hard truth. In 1995, eight Texas cougars were released into Florida panther habitat. The plan was for them to produce offspring with the local cats, adding genetic diversity. It was deemed a necessary step, since after many years of isolation is South Florida, inbreeding was causing problems — including reduced cub survival.
So, how different is a Texas cougar from a Florida panther? Well, at the time, they were viewed as two different subspecies of the same species. The Florida cats were Puma concolor coryi. The Texas cats were Puma concolor stanleyana.
Subspecies designations used to be very popular with biologists. If you had a species that could be found over a vast area — such as Puma concolor, which has a natural range of most of North and South America, from the Canadian Rockies to Argentina — you would break it down into local populations or subspecies. These subspecies were often nebulous at best, and many could be correctly identified only if you knew where the animal had come from.
Along came DNA testing. As a tool for classifying animals, it was truly revolutionary. Digging into DNA, we learned that some creatures long believed to be different species or subspecies were actually of like kind. (We also learned that others, which look alike, are actually not — a story for some other time, but bonefish are a great example.)
Prior to DNA testing, there were 32 recognized subspecies of Puma concolor. Now there are just two: P. c. concolor in South America and P. c. couguar in Central and North America.
Wait a minute: What happened to the Florida panther? It used to be a recognized subspecies. The DNA says there’s nothing to recognize. The panther didn’t go extinct, because it never existed in the first place.
Whether you call them panthers, cougars, pumas, mountain lions, catamounts, painters, or any of the dozens of other common names used for them, from a biological standpoint, they’re all the same. While this may seem unlikely, given the geographical expanse these cats roam, an incident from 2011 helps explain how this situation occurred.
First, a bit of background. When a young cougar is ready to leave its mother’s care, it must form its own territory. For female cats, this is usually fairly easy: They just set up next door to Mom. In areas where prey is abundant, a lady cat might claim just a few square miles for her own use.
Males don’t have that luxury. Their territories need to be much larger, overlapping with as many females as possible. And older males in their prime years will try to kill any young upstarts horning in on their turf. Sometimes a male seeking a territory will get lucky and find an old king that can be bumped off. But usually, he must make a long trek to find a place he can live, and most are unsuccessful.
This might seem unfair, but it’s a great way to prevent inbreeding and spread genes far and wide. Before we snarled up the system with things like roads and cities blocking the way, what existed in an area was usually a number of females that were related to one another and males that were not.
Since males were constantly challenging one another for dominance, by the time a female got to breeding age, her father was not usually the local stud anymore. The result was a nice, deep gene pool.
The 2011 episode illustrated how far these genes were spread. On June 11 of that year, a young male cougar was hit by a car in Milford, Conn. While there used to be cougars in New England, they’ve been MIA for a century. Where did this cat come from?
DNA evidence showed that the cougar had traveled about 1,500 miles, passing through Minnesota and Wisconsin on its way to the Northeast. The logical assumption was that he was not able to set up a territory in the west due to the presence of other males.
As he moved east, he found places to hunt, but no females. Since a territory with no girls is not worth owning, he stayed on the move. Who knows how far he might have gone, if not for that fateful collision?
Now, just because Florida panthers don’t really exist from a biological standpoint doesn’t mean we shouldn’t protect them. While their genetics may not be unique, they are the last pocket of wild big cats remaining east of the Mississippi. They have outwitted their only predator (that’s us, by the way) and managed to eke out a living even as the state’s human population boomed. For that, they should be celebrated.
And also, genetics be damned: Florida panthers will always be Florida panthers to me.
Capt. Josh Olive is a fifth-generation native Florida Cracker and a Florida Master Naturalist, and has been fascinated by all sorts of wild things and places since he was able to walk. If you have questions about living with wildlife, contact him at Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com or 941-276-9657. You can also follow him on Instagram @florida_is_wild.