September 24, 2010
Call them panthers, mountain lions, cougars or pumas, the Americas’ largest cat species has been dwindling in eastern North America for hundreds of years. They were extirpated from everywhere but some shrinking habitat in Florida between Naples and Miami. And even there, the panthers were not doing well. By the mid-1990s, the population consisted of just a couple dozen adult cats, and they were suffering from the problems of inbreeding: low reproduction rates, sperm quality and testosterone levels; heart defects; kinked tails; and high loads of parasites and pathogens. It wasn’t looking good for the Florida kitties.
In 1995, conservationists tried to bolster the Florida population by introducing eight female panthers from Texas. The two subspecies used to intermingle, so transferring a few females would restore some of the natural gene flow. Fifteen years later, scientists are declaring the program a success. The addition of just a few new kitties to the gene pool resulted in a more diverse population that no longer suffered from the problems of inbreeding. And the population tripled in size. (The study appears in today’s issue of Science.)
Florida’s panthers, like so many cat species, still face serious challenges to their survival, including habitat loss and disease. But it’s heartening to see that relatively simple solutions—transferring a handful of cats combined with efforts to preserve habitat and reduce deaths from car accidents—can have such a positive effect on a population.
Earlier this week, the BBC announced the discovery of tigers in Bhutan living high above the treeline, far from where anyone had expected the cats could survive. Scientists hope to create a corridor connecting small, scattered tiger populations, such as this one in Bhutan, with others across much of Asia. The idea being that, like the Florida panthers, Asia’s tiger populations would get stronger from increased genetic diversity.
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