Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Florida Panther Comeback a Success Story with Many Asterisks

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Florida Panther Comeback a Success Story with Many Asterisks

Article excerpt

The population of Florida panthers has increased from 25 adults in 1995 to 100 today thanks to human intervention. But without continued intervention, the species will become extinct.

Endangered Florida panthers are inching back from the brink of extinction thanks to eight female cougars introduced from Texas 15 years ago.

The gain in numbers is modest. The population has grown from about 25 adults in the Sunshine State 15 years ago to roughly 100 today.

More telling biologically is the badly needed shot of genetic diversity the females introduced into a badly inbred population, researchers say. Many of the big cats are healthier, more readily able to resist disease, more reproductively successful, and are freer of serious physical deformities that signaled a group of animals undergoing genetic collapse.

That is the picture that emerges from a long-term panther monitoring program conducted by a team of scientists from federal and state agencies as well as from the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Florida.

"Given the changes we've seen in the population, the genetic results are cause for optimism," says David Onorato, a conservation biologist with the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, based in St. Petersburg.

But the story, captured in a research paper the team published in the today's issue of the journal Science, is as much a cautionary tale as it is a reason for optimism, he and other conservation specialists say.

Intervention of last resort

Importing females to introduce a more diverse set of genes to an isolated population of animals on the brink of genetic collapse represents an intervention of last resort.

The effort represents the kind of active management that will become increasingly necessary, particularly to conserve large, charismatic species that historically have roamed across broad swaths of continents.

"The world is losing its spaces," notes Craig Packer, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota, who was not part of the research team. As habitats for large, top-of-the-food-chain animals become increasingly fragmented and isolated from each other, they set the stage for declines similar to the Florida panthers' plight. …

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