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Florida Authorities Investigate a Disorder Affecting Panthers’ Ability to Walk

The crippling condition appears to hamper the big cats’ back leg coordination

Potential explanations for the disorder include infectious disease, rat poison, toxic algae and nutritional deficiencies. (Courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)
smithsonian.com

A mysterious affliction is crippling Florida’s panthers, leaving some members of the endangered species unable to walk without stumbling or toppling over.

As the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) announced Monday, the disorder—believed to affect the big cats’ ability to coordinate their back legs—has struck at least nine panthers and two bobcats to date. According to a press release, trail camera footage captured in Collier, Lee and Sarasota counties shows eight panthers (mainly juveniles) and one adult bobcat struggling to walk to varying degrees. Another panther photographed in Charlotte County could also be affected.

The FWC further confirmed the presence of neurological damage in one panther and one bobcat examined after dying of unrelated causes. According to the Washington Post’s Morgan Krakow, the bobcat sustained injuries during a fight and was subsequently hit by a car, while the panther was euthanized after she was struck by a vehicle and contracted an infection.

Neither animal tested positive for feline leukemia or commonly seen infectious diseases, but as spokeswoman Michelle Kerr of the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute notes, “We wouldn’t say infectious diseases are ruled out completely.”

Krakow writes that potential explanations for the big cats’ condition range from infection to nutritional deficiencies, exposure to heavy metals, and toxins such as rat poison and toxic algae. It’s possible the panthers contracted a disease by preying on infected animals or drinking contaminated water, but it remains too early to know for certain.

“While the number of animals exhibiting these symptoms is relatively few, we are increasing monitoring efforts to determine the full scope of the issue,” Gil McRae, director of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, explains in the statement. “Numerous diseases and possible causes have been ruled out; a definitive cause has not yet been determined.”

According to Joshua Sokol of the New York Times, the agency first learned about the disorder when a local submitted video footage of an affected kitten in 2018. A review of photographs from the previous year yielded another instance of the ailment, but reports only started ramping up recently. “It was not until 2019 that additional reports have been received, suggesting that this is a broader issue,” spokeswoman Carli Segelson says to the Times.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Florida’s panther population was dangerously low during the 1970s and ‘80s, when just 20 to 30 of the big cats roamed the state. Thanks to heightened conservation efforts, including the introduction of gene pool-diversifying Texas cougars in the 1990s, this number has risen steadily. As Amber Crooks, environmental policy coordinator for the nonprofit Conservancy of South Florida, tells the Miami Herald’s David Goodhue, around 120 to 230 panthers now live across Florida. Still, Crooks notes, “The population is already facing many … threats”—among others, urban development, cars, habitat loss and territorial disputes—“so this [new disorder] is concerning.”

To gain a better understanding of the mysterious crippling condition, the FWC is deploying extra trail cameras, consulting with federal authorities and experts, and appealing to the public. In particular, Sokol reports for the Times, researchers are hoping to confirm whether the disorder is limited to several counties along the state’s Gulf Coast or indicative of a more widespread problem. Locals can submit video footage of potentially affected animals through an online portal or via email at Panther.Sightings@MyFWC.com.

Speaking with the Post’s Krakow, Samantha Wisely, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Florida, says authorities will need to investigate multiple potential explanations for the epidemic.

“When you don’t have a good sense of what it is,” she concludes, “you really want to cast your net widely.”

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