Today's Florida panther is struggling for survival, but things could've been much worse, according to a recent report from the University of Florida. Research shows Florida's big cats were given a boost in 1995, when eight female cougars from Texas were brought in to help diversify the ailing Florida population, the News-Press reports.
State officials released the female cats 18 years ago to address breeding issues that can result from a "segmented population." Without that much-needed shot of "genetic diversity" the study indicates that the animal would likely now be extinct.
The report said there is a 71 percent chance that only 10 of the endangered cats would be alive in the wild today if not for the genetic infusion. The breeding project, somewhat controversial at that time, has boosted panther population across much of South Florida's undeveloped lands.
The Texas cougar project did raise questions about the "validity of the Florida panther as an authentic subspecies." Experts note, however, that the two feline populations share genetic traits because of their geographical proximity. Cats born in South Florida are classified as panthers.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates there are currently 100 to 160 panthers living in the wild; about five times as many as believed to have lived in 1995. Despite the increase, the animal remains classified as an endangered species with its numbers closely tracked by state officials.
In related news, Naples Daily News reported on Monday that "Florida wildlife officials have counted the third panther death of 2013." The dead male panther was found in Immokalee on private land. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said puncture wounds in the skull indicate a territorial fight with another panther. The previous two panther deaths this month were attributed to car accidents.