ABOVE: Endangered Florida panther

Several Florida panthers and bobcats appear to be suffering from an unknown neurological disorder that affects the control of their hind legs, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced August 19. 

As of this month, the FWC confirmed neurological damage in one panther and one bobcat, according to the statement. Trail footage caught more affected cats struggling to walk, including one adult bobcat and eight panthers, most of which were kittens. The videos and images were gathered from various locations in Collier, Lee, and Sarasota counties, as well as one possible case in Charlotte County. 

“Affected animals have tested negative for multiple infectious diseases that can affect felines and other species,” says Carli Segelson, an FWC spokesperson, in an email to The New York Times. Although only a few panthers have shown symptoms, “any disease or condition impacting multiple animals...

Trail camera footage has captured eight panthers, mostly kittens, and one adult bobcat displaying varying degrees of trouble walking or difficulty coordinating their back legs.

The first videos of struggling kittens were sent to the FWC in 2018 and a few still photos from 2017 hinted at a similar ailment, according to The New York Times. This year, additional cases began cropping up more rapidly and revealed a broader problem. The Florida panther—the official state cat—stands as the last remaining puma population in the eastern United States. The endangered species rebounded after dipping down to roughly 20 individuals in the 1990s and becoming  prone to serious medical conditions, such as heart murmurs and sterility, due to inbreeding, according to the Miami Herald

Breeding programs paired panthers with a related species of Texas cougars and helped to diversify the gene pool and bolster the population, but even today, panther counts remain low. 

“The population is already facing many other threats, so this is concerning, particularly given that there are only 120 to 230 panthers left,” says Amber Crooks, an environmental policy coordinator for the nonprofit Conservancy of South Florida, in an email to the Miami Herald

The Conservancy recently opposed a large development project in Collier County, stating that it would impinge upon already limited panther habitat that already faces threats from other urban development projects and cars. In 2019 alone, researchers have noted more than a dozen cases of car strikes killing Florida panthers, including a pregnant female, according to the Times

With the cats now facing a new neurological threat, the FWC has teamed up “with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a wide array of experts from around the world to determine what is causing this condition,” according to the statement.  

The FWC encourages the public to help with its investigation by submitting trail camera footage or other videos that happen to capture animals that appear to have a problem with their rear legs or by  contacting the FWC at Panther.Sightings@MyFWC.com.

Nicoletta Lanese is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at nlanese@the-scientist.com.

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