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Description and Range

a panther running

Florida panthers and bobcats are the only two wild cats found in Florida and panthers are by far the larger of the two.  This section describes what panthers look like, compares them to their western counterparts, shows where panthers formerly and currently live and describes their evolutionary history.

Range of the Puma

Map showing the range of Pumas and Panthers

The puma, of which panthers are a subspecies, once had the largest range of any land mammal in the Americas. This large cat lived as far north as the Yukon in Canada, with its range extending all the way to the southern tip of South America. It was well adapted to a wide range of environments from coniferous forests to deserts, mountains and rain forests.

Today in the U.S., puma are found in about half of their original range, primarily in the sparsely populated mountain and desert regions of western states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming)

The only puma population east of the Mississippi River are Florida panthers.

Like other wildlife, puma have four requirements: food, cover, water and space. Food for puma includes large prey, most commonly deer, as well as smaller animals like raccoons. Cover can be anything that provides shelter from the elements for resting, for mothers to conceal their young or vegetation and objects that conceal puma while stalking prey. Water is rarely a problem for puma, except for individuals living in the driest parts of the western U.S. However, water affects the puma’s habitat and prey and has an indirect influence on their movements or the areas they use. Lastly, space is needed to ensure other survival requirements can be met, mates can be located and young adult puma can establish their territories.

Figure 1: Map of North America showing Puma and Panther Ranges 
North American puma range is outlined in black and covers the western part of United States and Canada.  Florida panther range is outlined in pink and covers the southeastern United States.  Known panther occurrences shown as blue circles mainly south of Orlando, Florida and most panther breeding occurs in the orange-shaded area in south Florida around the Everglades.

Range of the Florida Panther

Map showing known panther occurrences and breeding range

In the southeastern U.S., panthers formerly ranged throughout Florida, as far west as Arkansas and as far north as South Carolina. Today only about 120-230 adult panthers exist, primarily in southwest Florida. Young males in search of their own territories have been documented in other parts of Florida but most of the breeding population remains restricted to south Florida, below the Caloosahatchee River. Conversely, it is not uncommon to find male panthers throughout the Florida peninsula, and one male ventured into western Georgia where he was shot and killed in 2008.

Figure 2: Map of known panther occurrences and breeding range
All known occurrences of Florida panthers shown in blue with most occurring south of Orlando, around Lake Okeechobee and down to the end of the pennisula.  The area where most panther breeding occurs is shown in orange with all occurring south of Lake Okeechobee and throughout the Everglades area.

Cory with a panther

Scientists classify the biological world into a series of categories beginning with the broadest and ending with the most specific. This classification is called taxonomy.

The Florida panther is classified as:

  • Kingdom - Animalia
    • Phylum - Chordata
      • Subphylum - Vertebrata
        • Class - Mammalia
          • Order - Carnivora
            • Family - Felidae
              • Subfamily - Felinae
                • Genus - Puma
                  • Species - concolor
                    • Subspecies - coryi

The Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) is one of more than 25 subspecies of puma (Puma concolor). Historically, distinctions between subspecies were made based on physical characteristics but today there are new tools such as DNA analyses. Combining the use of physical characteristics with DNA analyses to help define subspecies is an evolving process. It is especially difficult when dealing with a species as wide-ranging as the puma. There is inconsistency in the total number of puma subspecies. Various books and other sources identify the number of subspecies as anywhere from six to 30.

The subspecies name coryi comes from naturalist and hunter Charles Barney Cory, who first described the Florida panther as a subspecies of cougar in 1896 in his book Hunting and Fishing in Florida. He named it Felis concolor floridana, but floridana had already been used for a subspecies of bobcat so scientists changed the name to Felis concolor coryi.

Until 1993, the cougar was classified in the genus Felis along with the domestic cat, the ocelot and 27 other species. In 1993 the cougar was reassigned to the genus Puma.

A study on puma genetics published in 2000 suggested that all North American puma became extinct during the late Pleistocene era some 10,000 years ago. Subsequently, puma recolonized the continent after the last ice age and all North American puma are believed to be comprised of a single subspecies according to the study’s authors. This study further suggested that only six subspecies of puma, instead of 30, should be recognized range-wide throughout North and South America. No consensus opinion has emerged from mammologists, taxonomists and other scientists on whether to accept this paper’s findings. Even if the scientific classification of the Florida panther were to change it could still be protected under the Endangered Species Act as an endangered distinct population segment.

Figure 1: Florida panther first described by Charles B. Cory in 1896.

"The Puma" book cover

The panther’s scientific name is Puma concolor coryi and concolor means one color in Latin. Puma adults are a uniform tan color with lighter fur on their lower chests, belly and inner legs. Shades of individual animals may vary considerably from grayish to reddish to yellowish. This uniform color conceals them effectively in a variety of settings including the open range. Florida panthers and all other puma subspecies are never black.

Young and Goldman in their 1946 book "The Puma: Mysterious American Cat" noted that the color of pumas often matches the color of the deer, their primary prey (Figure 1).

Puma kittens are spotted, which helps to camouflage them in the shadows of their den. These spots fade as they approach maturity at the end of their first year. Pumas have long, round tails (nearly two-thirds the length of their head and body). Tails help balance the body, especially during ambush pounces on prey.

Male panthers are larger than female panthers. They weigh from 100 to 160 pounds; female panthers weigh from 70 to 100 pounds. Panthers vary in height at the shoulder from 24 to 28 inches and measure from 6 to 7.2 feet from nose to tip of the tail.

Florida versus non-Florida panther skull morphology

The skull of the Florida panther is distinct from other subspecies of puma. It is relatively broad and flat with highly arched nasal bones, giving the profile a rounded appearance as it transitions from the forehead to the tip of the nose (Figure 2 Florida Panther on the right - Non-Florida on left).

The Florida panther often has a right angle kink at the end of its tail, a whorl of hair or a "cowlick" in the middle of its back, and white flecks in the fur on its neck and back. The kink in the tail and the whorl of hair is thought to be the result of inbreeding within a small population and are not defining characteristics of the subspecies. Kinked tails and cowlicks occur less frequently in the population following genetic management that began in 1995. Cowlicks have been reported in other subspecies of puma, but in much lower frequencies. The white flecks in the coat on the neck and back of panthers are caused by tick bites.

Figure 2: Skull Morphology: "Roman Nose"

  • Florida panthers have arched nasel bones, sometimes referred to as a "Roman nose"
  • Nasals are higher (or nearly so) than rest of skull when viewed in profile
  • More easily distinguished on bare skull

 

The first true or modern cat (in the genus Proailurus) appeared around 30 million years ago. Some 10 million years later, a descendant of this first cat (in the genus Pseudaelurus) gave rise to two main branches of the felid family tree: the nimravids, large animals with huge canine teeth, and the felids, smaller, faster animals. Commonly referred to as saber-toothed cats, the nimravids occurred in what is now Florida until the late Pleistocene, about 10,000 years ago, before they went extinct. Meanwhile the other branch of the felid tree continued to thrive. The fossil record reveals that jaguars, American lions, cheetahs, lynx, puma and ocelots occurred in Florida alongside saber-toothed cats until about 10,000 years ago.

Modern puma have been around for about 3 million years and they, along with bobcats, are the remaining wild cats still living in Florida.

Florida Panther

(Top) panther, (middle) panther ears, (bottom) panther tracks

Description: uniformly tan, adults not spotted, tail nearly length of body.

Weight: 60-160 lbs

Total length: 7-8 ft

Body length: 4.5 ft

Tail length: 3 ft

Shoulder height: 2.25 ft

Tip of tail: black all around

Track: A male panther track is roughly
3 1/4" length x 3 1/4" wide

Bobcat

(Top) bobcat, (middle) bobcat ears, (bottom) bobcat tracks

Description: reddish brown, spots evident but variable, tail much shorter than length of body.

Weight: 20-30 lbs

Total length: 3 ft

Body length: 2.5 ft

Tail length: 6 inches

Shoulder height: 1.5 ft

Back of ears: white spot

Tip of tail: white underside

Track: A bobcat track is approximately 1/3 the size of a panther track at:
1 1/4" length x 1 5/8" width

Cat Traits

Watch an ordinary house cat. You'll see traits shared by all cats - no matter how wild, where they live, or whether they are big or small, striped, spotted or solid colored. Watch the cat stalk a lizard in the backyard, moving nearly silently with a steady gaze and mobile ears. Watch it crouch, hind legs tucked under, belly to the ground, tail twitching. Watch it freeze. Then watch it pounce with lightness, accuracy and speed.

All cats hunt live prey. They all have sharp teeth, retractable claws and powerful leg muscles. They have a short muzzle that exerts a more powerful bite than the longer muzzle of the dog. They have excellent hearing and vision and, unlike dogs, mainly hunt by sight and sound rather than by smell. Still, cats' sense of smell is far superior to that of humans. Most cats, including panthers, are solitary hunters and typically feed alone, with the exception of females and their kittens. Older kittens may accompany their mothers on hunts, and kittens of all ages will share their mother's kills.

Panthers, like all other cats, have skeletons that permit maximum flexibility. The spine of a cat is extremely flexible. The vertebrae are largely held together by muscles instead of ligaments, allowing the cat to twist, compress, lengthen and turn in pursuit of prey. Cat flexibility is also enhanced by the fact that the front legs of the cat are attached directly to the shoulder blades, a feature that allows the cat to stalk with its belly low to the ground. This also allows the cat to pivot its front legs and grasp prey with its claws. Much of their body weight consists of muscles, and most are baggy skinned, which allows a wide range of motion and helps protect their internal organs during fights.

Cats' eyes appear to glow in the dark. A special membrane behind the retina, the tapetum lucidum, reflects light and increases the cat's night vision. Smaller cats, which are primarily nocturnal hunters, have elliptical pupils that are capable of opening very wide at night. Puma and other large cats have round pupils making them suited to hunt during the day or night. Rods and cones are the two types of light receptor cells in cat’s eyes. There is a concentration of cones near the center of the retina which are used for daylight and discerning color but the majority of receptors are rods which are used in low light conditions and cannot detect color. There is evidence suggesting cats can only discern color of close or large objects.

Panther

Cats also have a structure known as Jacobsen's organ in the roof of their mouths that allows them to taste and smell a substance at the same time. A cat is using its Jacobsen's organ when it makes a face -- known as the flehmen response -- in which they may curl their lips or crinkle their nose while their mouth is partially open.

Sometimes their tongue might even stick out. Males often make this face when smelling the urine of a female to tell if she is ready to mate.

Panthers do not roar

One way that scientists classify cats is according to whether or not they roar. Lions, tigers, leopards, snow leopards and jaguars roar. The roar is produced by vibration of flexible cartilage at the base of the tongue. Florida panthers (and all other puma), domestic cats, lynx, bobcats and cheetahs do not.

What sounds do they make? Well, they are usually quiet but sometimes they chirp, peep, whistle, purr, moan, scream, growl and hiss. Females signal their readiness to mate by yowling or caterwauling. But, they don't roar.

Florida panther

Puma have been referred to by many names. As he traveled near the Florida Everglades in 1513, Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca reported seeing a lion. Other European explorers believed they were seeing tigers or panthers (a name used for African leopards). European settlers modified lion to mountain lion, a name still used today in the western United States, although puma inhabit many places other than mountains. People in portions of the southern and eastern U.S. referred to the big cat as a "painter," probably a dialect variation of panther. New Englanders coined the term "catamount" or cat of the mountain.

In Florida until the 19th century when "panther" became the most common term, the puma was referred to as "tiger." Tigertail, a famous Indian leader of the Second Seminole War (1835-42), was named for the panther skin he wore from his waist during an Indian ball game. The name Tiger lives on among contemporary Seminole and Miccosukee Indians. In the 1960s, Miccosukee leader Buffalo Tiger was instrumental in gaining federal recognition for the Miccosukee tribe.

Florida Seminoles refer to the panther as coo-wah-chobee - "big cat." Seminole society is divided into groups called clans, based on descent through females and named after animals. One of the Seminole clans is the panther clan. Others are the bird, snake and deer clans. Traditionally Seminole medicine people have come from the panther clan. The panther is thought to be a favorite of the Creator and to have special powers. Panther tails and claws are believed to alleviate muscle disease and to increase strength and endurance.

Although cougar, mountain lion (often shortened to “lion”), and - in Florida - panther, are the most common names used by biologists in North America to refer to this animal, puma is often used in the scientific literature to avoid confusion among the wide-ranging audience interested in this species.