The Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute published a series of trail camera photos to Facebook last week that the agency says are “likely the first ever images of Florida panthers mating.”
Although the photos were captured on Aug. 24, they were just released by the agency on Dec. 21. The breeding pair was documented on the Babcock Ranch Preserve in Charlotte County, which lies just north of Fort Myers and west of Lake Okeechobee, and is managed by the state and the U.S. Forest Service. This documented mating took place farther north than where the Florida Wildlife Commission says most panther reproduction normally occurs.
“Breeding success north of the Caloosahatchee River is critical to the long-term viability of the Florida panther population,” reads the post from the FWC Research Institute, “so we are hopeful that this mating event resulted in a litter of kittens that would have been born around Nov 22nd. If so, they would be expected to emerge from the den in January 2022.”
There are approximately 120 to 230 adult panthers in the state’s population, according to the FWC, although that figure is disputed by stakeholders like ranchers, who say the state significantly underestimates the number of panthers. The Florida panther was listed one of the first species added under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and it remains listed as “endangered.”
While Florida panthers have been documented all over the state and have ranged into Georgia, the FWC reports that most of the big cats live south of Lake Okeechobee. And because females have only ever been documented in the southern part of the state, that’s where experts say breeding occurs.
Read Next: Florida Panther Attacks a Fawn, Captured on Trail Camera
In recent years, FWC has reported that feline leukomyelopathy is affecting Florida’s native bobcat and panther populations. Big cats affected by the disorder exhibit rear leg weakness that leads to difficulty walking. As of March 23, the state had documented FLM in three panthers with at least 19 more suspected of contracting the disease.