Why genetic restoration was necessary

In the early 1990s, the Florida panther population reached a critical point. The combined effects of habitat loss and isolation over the previous century had led to an inbred and declining population that suffered from low levels of genetic variation and varied health problems. The latter included heart defects, cryptorchidism (undescended testicles), depressed immune systems, kinked tails and cowlicks. In 1994, the FWC met with geneticists, conservation biologists and other cooperating agencies including the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to develop “A Plan for Genetic Restoration and Management of the Florida Panther. Adobe PDF”  

This team’s objectives included the following:Front cover from the 1994 Plan for Genetic Restoration and Management of the Florida Panther

  • Reducing inbreeding in the Florida panther;

  • Restoring genetic variability and vitality of Florida panther offspring; and

  • Restoring the population’s genetic diversity to levels comparable to those in populations of western puma.

In the plan, biologists outlined the need to introduce six to 10 panthers from a genetically healthy population of North American pumas in order to reverse the effects of inbreeding and achieve the desired genetic restoration of the Florida subspecies. The research team decided to release eight female Texas pumas (Puma concolor stanleyana) into the wilds of south Florida.

 

Two biologists releasing a female panther from Texas into Big Cypress National Preserve in 1995

 

Why were Texas pumas selected? Historically, Florida panthers ranged throughout the southeastern states, from western Louisiana to all of Florida. Puma, including panthers, occurred throughout the U.S. between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and the exchange of genetic material (or gene flow) between pumas in Texas and Florida panthers in Louisiana occurred periodically. This gene flow likely assisted with maintaining a healthy level of genetic variation in Florida panthers across their historic range.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Florida panther population declined significantly and eventually became isolated to south Florida. The overall extent of puma distribution also shrank, as they were wiped out in the eastern U.S. and became restricted primarily to western states. Florida panthers no longer experienced any gene flow with other puma populations. As the size of the Florida panther population continued to decrease, its genetic diversity also decreased as inbreeding became more and more common.  Inbreeding has subsequently been identified as a likely cause of the aforementioned health issues prevalent in the small population of 20-30 Florida panthers that existed in the 1980s and early 1990s. 

Mimicking the historic gene flow that once occurred naturally between pumas in Texas and the Florida panther had the potential to alleviate these problems. The intent of this management initiative was not to replace the Florida panther’s gene pool, but to create a healthier, more resilient population similar to the historic population that roamed the southeastern United States. In fact, a Florida panther population with higher levels of genetic variation is more apt to recover from its endangered status.



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