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Panthers and Forests in South Florida: an Ecological Perspective

E. Jane Comiskey, University of Tennessee
Oron L Bass, Jr., Everglades National Park
Louis J Gross, University of Tennessee
Roy T McBride, Livestock Protection Company
Rene Salinas, University of Tennessee


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The endangered Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) survives in an area of pronounced habitat diversity in southern Florida, occupying extensive home ranges that encompass a mosaic of habitats. Twenty-one years of daytime monitoring via radiotelemetry have provided substantial but incomplete information about panther ecology, mainly because this method fails to capture movement and habitat use between dusk and dawn, when panthers are most active. Broad characterizations of panther habitat suitability have nonetheless been derived from telemetry-based habitat selection studies, focusing narrowly on forests where daytime resting sites are often located. The resulting forest-centered view of panthers attributed their restricted distribution and absence of population growth in the mid-1990s to a scarcity of unfragmented forest for expansion. However, the panther population has doubled since the beginning of genetic restoration in 1995, increasing five-fold in public areas described as unsuitable based on forest criteria. Although the forest-centered view no longer explains panther distribution, it continues to shape management decisions and habitat conservation policies. The assumptions and limitations of this view therefore merit critical examination. We analyze the role of forests in the ecology of the Florida panther. To address the absence of nighttime telemetry data, we use innovative telemetry mapping techniques and incorporate information from field observations indicating habitat use during active hours (e.g., tracks, scats, urine markers, and kill sites). We consider daytime telemetry data in the context of panther home ranges and breeding units. We analyze home range size in relation to the amount of forest within each range, concluding that percent forest cover is a poor predictor of size. We apply fractal analysis techniques to characterize the relative density of forest cover associated with daytime locations and interpret the results in terms of spatial landscape patterns, highlighting the limitations of daytime telemetry data for characterizing overall habitat use. We conclude that the forest-centered view of panther habitat selection is based on an uncritical evaluation of telemetry data collected prior to the recent population expansion and on the unsupported assumption that day bed habitats are representative of nighttime habitat use. We find that numerous factors contribute to habitat suitability and population density and distribution, and that P. concolor in Florida, as elsewhere in their range, are habitat generalists, exploiting the broad spectrum of available habitats for hunting, resting, mating, travel, denning, and dispersal. Whereas panthers readily use forested habitat with understory and prey, we find no support for the view that only the forested land within a habitat mosaic is potential panther habitat, or for the contention that only forested habitats are used by panthers within existing home ranges. We suggest a more ecologically consistent management and recovery paradigm based on maintaining the integrity of the system of overlapping home ranges that characterizes panther social structure and satisfies breeding requirements. Such a paradigm focuses on the requirements for reproductive success of a small population in a changing environment.

Key words

Felis concolor coryi, Florida panther, Puma concolor coryi, forested habitat, endangered species, fractal analysis, habitat selection, home range, landscape conservation, telemetry

Copyright © 2002 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087