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Wildlife Mississippi Magazine

Summer/Fall 1999

"Bear" Facts About The Florida Panther

Dr. Cathy Shropshire, a wildlife biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, gives Wildlife Mississippi Magazine (WM) the latest information on the Florida panther (Felis concolor). Panther, painter, cougar, catamount, puma, mountain lion or whatever the name used, the panther remains one of the most legendary and least understood mammals of North America. The answers Cathy provides will hopefully clear up some of the misconceptions about the panther and discuss its present status in Mississippi.

WM: Which panther species is native to Mississippi?

DR. SHROPSHIRE: While thirteen subspecies of Felis concolor have been identified north of Mexico, the subspecies native to Mississippi is the Florida panther, Felis concolor coryi. Unless otherwise noted, the remainder of this interview will discuss the Florida panther.

WM: Reports of panther sightings give varying descriptions of the cat. What is the actual physical appearance of a panther?

DR. SHROPSHIRE: The adult panther's fur is typically a uniform tawny (light brown) color. It may vary, however, from slate gray to a darker brown or reddish color. An adult cat may be 42 to 54 inches in length (including tail over 72 inches in length), 26 to 31 inches high at the shoulder, and may weigh up to 200 pounds. The distinctive long tail has a dark brown tip.

WM: Many reports are of "black panthers". Is there really a black panther?

DR. SHROPSHIRE: To our knowledge, no black Florida panther has ever been confirmed in North America, either in the wild or in captivity. As stated above, the vast majority of panthers are light brown in color. The jaguar, a close relative of the panther which is found in Mexico and Central America, does have a black phase, as does the leopard which is found in Asia and Africa. The black panther is a myth, however, largely perpetuated by novelists, the movies and by those who confuse the jaguar or leopard with the panther.

WM: What is the range of the panther?

DR. SHROPSHIRE: In the eastern United States, the only recognized population of Florida panthers is found in southern Florida.

WM: What caused panther populations to decline and/or disappear in the eastern United States?

DR. SHROPSHIRE: The primary factors were a combination of: (1) loss of habitat, (2) the extremely low white-tailed deer population in the early 1900s, and (3) human fear of the cats coupled with an uneducated understanding of the panther¹s nature which ultimately led to their indiscriminate destruction.

WM: What could be considered as panther habitat?

DR. SHROPSHIRE: Preferred habitat in Mississippi would be bottomland hardwood tracts along the Mississippi River having relatively low human populations or influences and well established white-tailed deer populations.

WM: What does a panther eat?

DR. SHROPSHIRE: Primarily deer (up to 90% of its diet). The remainder of the diet would include rabbits, rodents and other native wildlife species including armadillos. Some plant species, notably grasses, are also eaten for roughage. Unfortunately, a panther may also prey on livestock, particularly cattle and sheep. However, livestock constitutes a very small percentage of a panther's actual diet.

WM: Let's talk about the present status of the panther in Mississippi. Scientists use the term "confirmed sighting" when discussing or referring to the panther's whereabouts. What is a "confirmed sighting"?

DR. SHROPSHIRE: A confirmed sighting would be a dead or live captured animal, or documented tracks, droppings, hair, or other physical evidence. One should note that Florida panthers are protected by state and Federal law. It would constitute an illegal act to willfully kill one of these animals.

WM: What and where were some of the last confirmed reports of panthers in Mississippi and the Lower Mississippi Valley?

DR. SHROPSHIRE: A partial listing of panthers being killed or found dead would include: Montgomery County, Arkansas in 1949; Caddo Parish, Louisiana in 1965; near Hamburg, Arkansas in 1969; and in Logan County, Arkansas in 1975. A plaster cast of a tract was taken in 1975 in Concordia Parish, Louisiana, just across the Mississippi River from Natchez. It is believed that some of these may have been captive animals that had escaped or been released.

WM: Are there any reliable, but unconfirmed, panther sightings in Mississippi?

DR. SHROPSHIRE: Among the most credible sightings are reports from the Port Gibson, Mississippi area, Madison and Concordia Parishes in Louisiana, Washington and Sharkey Counties in the Delta, a sighting from the Mississippi River in the vicinity of Tennessee Bar (Issaquena County, Mississippi) and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in Hancock County. However, a research project funded by the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Fund in 1988 provided no "confirmed" evidence of wild panthers in Hancock County.

WM: Why aren't more panther sightings documented?

DR. SHROPSHIRE: The number of panthers in the wild is extremely small. Being secretive in nature, they move little during daylight hours and leave little sign. If a panther is sighted or tracks are found, often the person(s) having knowledge of the sighting does not immediately notify the proper authorities so that documentation (i.e. confirmed tracks) can be established. When authorities have been immediately notified, the tracts often turn out to be either destroyed by the wind or rain or to have been made by a large dog.

WM: How can our members distinguish between panther and dog tracts?

DR. SHROPSHIRE: Panther tracks are more rounded than dog tracts and usually one of the middle toes of the panthers foot will extend farther than the others. A panther's heel pad is more squared than a dogs and has three rear lobes not found on a dog's heel pad. The claws are encased in a sheath and normally do not show in a walking track.

WM: Do panthers presently exist in Mississippi?

DR. SHROPSHIRE: There is a definite possibility that panthers could be present in Mississippi and that they are sighted or heard by humans. However, rather than permanent residents, these animals are more likely transient in nature. An individual panther¹s tracks have been found over areas of 200 square miles or more in a given 30 day period in Florida.

WM: Who should be contacted if a panther is sighted?

DR. SHROPSHIRE: The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks office in your district should be contacted as soon as possible, especially if you have tracts, hair, photographs or other visual evidence to substantiate the sighting.

WM: What is the law that concerns having panthers as pets?

DR. SHROPSHIRE: In 1997, a state law was passed regulating keeping certain animals as pets. The panther is among those species requiring a permit to possess. Since passage of the law, there has been an increase in the number of "good" sightings, that is, those that accurately describe the physical characteristics of a panther observed in good light conditions. Another common denominator with these sightings, however, is that they are of animals not exhibiting normal, wild animal behavior. Observations are made in the middle of the day, of animals crossing open pastures, of animals showing no obvious fear of human observers; or any combination of the above. It is believed that many, if not all, of these "good" sightings are of formerly captive animals that were released because their owners could not comply with the new state law.


Dr. Cathy Shropshire is a wildlife biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks in Jackson, Mississippi.

 

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