The Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) goes by many names including panther, cougar, and mountain lion. The less than 200 animals in Florida are a fragment of the larger mountain lion population that is spread out across much of North and South America. The Florida panther is considered a unique subspecies of mountain lion (Puma concolor). As settlement of Europeans began to spread across North America, cougar habitat became fragmented, and this species of big cat was wiped out from most of its natural range in the southeastern United States. Their present range in south Florida is further fragmented by roads, agriculture, and other infrastructure. Cougars in Florida are commonly struck and killed by cars and other moving vehicles on the roads.

The panthers in Florida have adapted to the region’s subtropical climate. They are usually found in pineland, hardwood hammock, and mixed swamp forest habitat. Mountain lions are solitary animals and—both males and females—live on their own most of the time, and typically solely inhabit a large area of territory. They maintain the boundaries of their territories by marking with scents from urine.

Female territories are typically smaller than that of the male, and male-female territories will often overlap. Territories can be as little as 16 square kilometers (10 square miles) to as much as 600 square kilometers (370 square miles).

Male panthers have been known to roam farther north into the state in recent years, near the borders of Alabama and Georgia, whereas females stay in their range more locally. The panther is the state animal of Florida.

  1. How can habitat fragmentation affect the health of the Florida panther?

    • Answer

      • Habitat fragmentation can make it difficult for a Florida panther to find sufficient food for itself or its offspring.
      • When habitat is fragmented by infrastructure such as roads, moving vehicles can also cause fatalities.
      • When a habitat becomes too fragmented, panthers can struggle to find a mate or frequent inbreeding can affect health as genetic issues arise.

  2. There have been reports of a Florida panther dying from an excess of mercury in its body. What is a common way that a panther or another top predator becomes fatally ill from too much mercury in its body?

    • Answer

      Top predators can become sick and even die from too much mercury in their bodies through a process called biomagnification. In biomagnification, the concentration of a substance increases progressively as it moves up the food chain. In Florida, the mercury had been introduced to the environment from coal-fired utilities, mining, solid-waste incinerators, and other industries. Once in the environment, it was picked up by algae, which is fed on by zooplankton, which are consumed by fish and crayfish. Raccoons consume the fish and crayfish and the mountain lion consumes the raccoons. The Flordia panther eventually will die from mercury poisoning. 

  3. Fatalities from road strikes are common for many wild animals whose habitat intersects with roads and highways. What is one way that transportation planners and communities can help this problem? 

    • Answer

      Reminding drivers to go slow and look out for wildlife is one way. Another way is to create infrastructure that allows the safe passage of wildlife through tunnels or bridges. This article highlights a few examples.

big cat
Noun

large predators, including tigers, lions, jaguars, and leopards.

biomagnification
Noun

process in which the concentration of a substance increases as it passes up the food chain.

cougar
Noun

large cat native to the Americas. Also called puma, mountain lion, and panther.

fragmentation
Noun

breaking up of large habitats into smaller, isolated chunks. Fragmentation is one of the main forms of habitat destruction.

Noun

environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

hardwood hummock
Noun

area of land slightly higher in elevation than the surrounding land and covered with hardwood trees, shrubs, palms, and ferns. Also called a hardwood hammock.

infrastructure
Noun

structures and facilities necessary for the functioning of a society, such as roads.

mountain lion
Noun

large cat native to North and South America. Also called a cougar, puma, catamount, and panther.

panther
Noun

large wild cat native to the Americas. Also called mountain lion and puma.

subspecies
Noun

(subsp.) group of organisms within a single species, often distinguished by geographic isolation.

subtropical
Adjective

bordering the tropics, just north of the Tropic of Cancer and south of the Tropic of Capricorn.

Noun

land permanently saturated with water and sometimes covered with it.

territory
Noun

land an animal, human, or government protects from intruders.