Scientists think toxic algae may be to blame for Florida's stumbling panthers, bobcats

Chad Gillis

FORT MYERS, Fla. – It could be mercury or rat poison that's causing some Florida panthers and bobcats in Southwest Florida to display neurological symptoms, but a professor and others think it could be related to toxic algae. 

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has documented several panthers and a bobcat in recent weeks that are exhibiting neurological symptoms. 

The agency has confirmed that one of the panthers and one bobcat have shown positive results for neurological damage, which could be what's causing the other cats to behave strangely. 

Larry Brand, a marine and ecology professor at University of Miami, said a number of pollutants and naturally existing organisms could be at the root of the problem. 

"The impression I got is that these panthers were along the Southwest coast and they did get the blooms of blue-green algae," Brand said. "I've got to think it is possible they were drinking water from the Caloosahatchee (River) and other areas. I talked to colleagues and they said it’s probably not the case, but it’s possible."

Brand said other causes could be mercury poisoning, rat poisoning or something biological. 

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The Caloosahatchee River and adjoining canals were blanketed by a blue-green algae outbreak last year, and it's not uncommon for panthers to travel relatively long distances. 

Just because all the cats observed were not along the Caloosahatchee River doesn't mean they didn't drink contaminated water. 

"We need to find out because if the algal toxins did lead to this, then this is very serious," Brand said. 

A Florida panther strolls past a camera trap set up at the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed on Jan. 15, 2019.

Earlier this summer, several dogs died after coming in contact with blue-green algae in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas. 

"We’ve got to wait and find out if those reports are credible but it certainly looks like something is going on," said Florida Gulf Coast University professor and scientist Darren Rumbold. "It leans in my mind toward natural toxins like the cyanobacteria, not necessarily ones that people are worried about in the river but there are other species out there. If it is a natural toxin it is probably water contaminated with cyanobacteria."

Eight panthers, mostly kittens, and one adult bobcat were filmed with the strange gait in Lee, Collier and Sarasota counties. At least one panther was photographed in Charlotte County with the same symptoms, according to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 

"While numerous diseases and possible causes – including distemper, cerebellar hypoplasia and degenerative myelopathy – can cause clinical signs similar to those being seen in the panthers and bobcats, and multiple possible causes are being considered, a definitive cause has not been determined," agency spokeswoman Carli Segelson said in an email. "FWC is testing for various potential toxins, including neurotoxic rodenticide (rat pesticide) and other environmental factors, as well as infectious diseases and nutritional deficiencies."

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According to Dr. Jan Stevenson, a professor of algal ecology at Michigan State University, blue-green algae is a form of toxic bacteria called cyanobacteria. While the organism is not actually algae, it contains chlorophyll that makes it look similar to the plant. The algae is usually found at or near the water's surface and can range in color from blue-green, bright green, or red. When the bacteria blooms, it can look like foam, scum, or spilled paint.

The algae can be harmful to dogs and people. Canines could have long-term health problems such as liver damage. Humans who come in contact with blue-green algae could have symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, twitching, paralysis, cardiac or respiratory difficulty and liver failure. The bacteria can also cause skin irritation, rashes and gastrointestinal issues. 

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Segelson said biologists haven't seen other cats with these behaviors in recent days. So far, the problem, whatever it is, has only been documented in a few cats. 

"We have not found any new panthers or bobcats displaying this condition," Segelson said. "Our panther experts are reviewing information we are receiving from the public and following up on credible leads."

Contributing: Micah Walker, Detroit Free Press. Follow Chad Gillis on Twitter: @ChadGillisNP

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Blue-green algae may be why Florida panthers stumble, scientists say