By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
MIAMI -- The Florida panther, the feline carnivore that roams what's left of the state's cypress swamps and other wilds, enjoys almost mythic status here.
Its image adorns license plates. The National Hockey League franchise is named for the cat. And it is, officially, the Florida state animal.
But now a new plan for saving the vaunted predator is reopening awkward questions for the animal's admirers: What, exactly, is a Florida panther?
Scientists believe there are only about 80 left in Florida. And given the shortage of habitat in the cat's rapidly developing namesake state, the draft recovery plan for the Florida panther, issued recently by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, proposes to export some of the predators out of state -- and names potential sites in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama.
The Florida panther roamed those states long ago, wildlife biologists said, and reintroducing it there could enable it to establish populations large enough to ward off extinction.
But the proposal to expand the range of the predator, which is being met warily from officials in other states, where farmers fear attacks on livestock, is also restarting debates about whether the Florida panther, officially considered an endangered subspecies, is for all practical purposes identical to the cougar, a far more common animal that lives in much of western North America.
"I'm not even sure at this point that a Florida panther, as a subspecies, exists," said David Goad, deputy director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, who opposes bringing the animal to Arkansas.
Crossbreeding between Texas cougars and Florida panthers, combined with modern genetic testing showing fewer distinctions between the two than previously believed, has led many to question the unique identity of Florida's fearsome mascot. "I think they had to do what they had to do, but it kind of clouds things," Goad said of the crossbreeding, which was initiated by wildlife officials in 1995 to eliminate the effects of inbreeding in the Florida animal.
The identity of the Florida panther -- and just how distinct it is from the cougar -- has been a matter of evolving science.
At the beginning of the 20th century, some scientists classified the Florida panther as a species. It later lost that distinction as scientists decided it was really just a subspecies, one of several in North America. It won federal protection as an endangered subspecies in 1973.
Its hold on survival since then has been tenuous at best.
The estimated population of Florida panthers dropped to as low as 30 in the early 1990s, and symptoms of inbreeding, including undescended testicles, were rife.
It was then that wildlife officials introduced eight cougars from Texas into the state.
The crossbreeding has been considered a success in many ways because the deleterious effects of inbreeding have been reduced and the number of cats -- by some estimates -- has more than doubled, officials said.
But the new crossbred cats are "Arnold Schwarzenegger kinds of cats compared to the old Florida panthers," said Stephen J. O'Brien, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health and the author of "Tears of the Cheetah," a book that covers some Florida panther genetics issues. "They look like they're on steroids. When gene flow takes place between two subspecies that have been separated for a long time, then natural selection shuffles the genetic deck."
Shortly after the cougars were introduced, a team of scientists began gathering genetic samples from more than 300 cats in North and South America. They found enough genetic similarity between Florida panthers and cougars that they recommended the two be considered the same subspecies.
"There was nothing unique to the Florida panther's genetic markers" said Melanie Culver, a geneticist for the U.S. Geological Survey and the lead author of the study. "At a subspecies level they are no different from other North American cougars."
Culver said she considers the Florida panther a "distinct population," because it has some characteristic traits, and as such it would find equal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Other scientists say there is ample reason to retain the Florida panther as a distinct subspecies -- but in part, they acknowledge, their point of view depends on their cast of mind.
"You have purists, and I'm one of them," said David Maehr, an associate professor of conservation biology at the University of Kentucky who has written about the Florida panther. "I think the genetic tools have not yet been discovered that will show what makes a Florida panther a Florida panther. But those differences are there -- otherwise humans wouldn't be able to see them."
Florida-based fans of the animal can be even more emphatic.
Culver "took license to say they're not that much different," said Stephen L. Williams, founder of the Florida Panther Society, an advocacy group. He said the Florida panther is distinguished from cougars by its reddish color, the shape of its nasal passages, and its hair, which is shorter and rougher.
Others identified a whorl of hair between shoulder blades and a kinked tail as distinctive traits, but those characteristics have become less common since the cougars were introduced into Florida.
"The situation with the crossbreeding spiraled out of control," Maehr said. "We may well be losing certain attributes of what a Florida panther is."
Maehr said the fight to save the panther is emblematic of the fight to save the last pieces of Florida's natural wonders.
"We're struggling to save a remnant of an animal, and that's pretty much all that's left of Florida," he said.