June 10, 2020

FLORIDA — At least eight panthers and bobcats have been confirmed with a mystifying neurological disorder with the potential to cripple the state’s wildcat populations.

Two panthers and six bobcats have been documented with feline leukomyelopathy, or FLM, in Collier, Charlotte, Pasco and Alachua counties by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists.

FWC biologists began investigating the disorder more intensely last year after the number of cases appeared to be on the rise. And last October, game cameras in Collier County caught a female panther known as FP256 stumbling with hind-leg weakness and two kittens in tow.

“We started to get still photographs of her stumbling, and then we put video cameras up,” said Dave Onorato, a research scientist with the Florida Panther Project. “We saw her condition steadily decline and then she had a litter.”

The video was captured on Oct. 23 and it was deemed that the kittens, “Cypress” and “Pepper,” who were ultimately orphaned, wouldn’t have survived with their mother’s debilitated condition.

By the end of the year, biologists named the malady feline leukomyelopathy. Since January, biologists have collected samples from eight additional bobcats from across portions of central and southwest Florida.

Most bobcats were road mortalities while some were injured and brought to rehab facilities for care.

Two of the eight bobcats sampled have been confirmed as having FLM. The only way to confirm FLM is a necropsy, an animal version of an autopsy.

“The first documented or ‘confirmed’ case of FLN was in 2017, but we’ve suspected this has been around since 2016,” Onorato said. “It’s a small number but there is also a small population of panthers out there.”

The current number and range of the panther population, as estimated by FWC, is 120 to 230 adult panthers that live below the Caloosahatchee River. They are found in southern Florida in swamplands such as Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve.

“We haven’t seen anything similar. We can see symptoms on video footage and it’s neural damage, which is permanent. As for a cause, we haven’t ruled out anything but tick paralysis. It could be an environmental toxin, it could be viral, it could be a heavy metal poisoning to rat poison or pesticides. We’re just running the whole gamut of things. We don’t have a firm suspect,” Onorato said.

“It’s a big question. It’s a mystery at this point. We are dealing with an endangered species. It could have a major effect on the panther.”

The FWC only radio collars subadults and adults.

“We are learning more about the panther’s recovery and monitoring genetic variations in the population,” Oronato said. “The success in funding this research shows that there is a strong ownership of the panther statewide.

“We follow them with GPS or locate them from air three times a week, and if we see their movements slow down, then we know it’s a female and she’s getting ready to den.”

This is done during the day, when females will leave kittens behind to hunt.

“If the transponder picks up, we triangulate the area to find the den. We check the kittens and collect genetic samples. We listen for her and get out of there before she gets back. We double time and get out of there.”

The Florida panther is the only subspecies of mountain lion that remains in the eastern United States. Hunting nearly wiped out the local population, and it was one of the first species added to the U.S. endangered species list in 1973, where it remains. Habitat loss continually threatens the remaining population.

Recently, the nonprofit Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida pledged a $150,000 grant to the FWC’s research into the cause of FLM.

The sales of panther license plates helps pay for the research and management the state performs in protecting the species.

For more information, visit myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/panther/disorder/updates/.

tjava@keysnews.com