Trail cameras in three counties have identified eight endangered panthers and one bobcat with a hitch in their step, affected by a mysterious neurological disorder that seems to hit kittens hardest.
State officials have also confirmed nerve damage first-hand in another panther and another bobcat.
In one video shared by the agency, a panther kitten stumbles several times as it follows its mother and a sibling, dragging its lower body as it struggles to rise.
“While the number of animals exhibiting these symptoms is relatively few, we are increasing monitoring efforts to determine the full scope of the issue,” said Gil McRae, the director of the state’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St Petersburg, Florida, in a statement.
The first video of a struggling kitten was taken by a citizen and sent to the agency in 2018. Later, a review of still photos from 2017 seemed to show another ailing kitten. This year, the number of cases has increased.
“It was not until 2019 that additional reports have been received, suggesting that this is a broader issue,” Carli Segelson, a spokesperson for the agency, said in an email.
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This disorder is the latest obstacle to the recovery of the Florida panther, a beloved big cat and the state’s official animal. The panthers are the only remaining wildcat population in the eastern United States, and it is a fixture on license plates and the namesake of the Miami area’s NHL team.
As a top predator, the panther also helps shape entire ecosystems — for instance, by reducing the number of troublesome feral hogs in the region.
In the 1990s, the Florida panther population dipped to about 20 cats, but the number rebounded with the addition of eight females captured in Texas.
In the past decade, however, as the Florida panther population has grown in step with human development in the animal’s habitat, scores of panthers have been killed crossing roads.
Already this year, researchers have found more than a dozen panthers, including a pregnant female, killed by road strikes. But the new neurological symptoms pose an altogether different challenge.
The agency has deployed additional cameras to spot more cases and has consulted the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, puma biologists and veterinarians.
“Affected animals have tested negative for multiple infectious diseases that can affect felines and other species,” Ms Segelson said.
The agency is testing for signs of rat poison, infection or nutrient deficiencies, she added.
The condition seems to be confined to three or four counties along Florida’s Gulf Coast: Collier, Lee, Sarasota and perhaps Charlotte. By soliciting more videos from the public on social media, researchers hope to confirm that figure and screen for additional cases.
Although only a few panthers have shown symptoms, “any disease or condition impacting multiple animals is cause for concern,” Ms Segelson said. “The Fish and Wildlife Commission takes this situation seriously.”
The New York Times