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Study: Texas pumas saved endangered Florida panthers but introduced genetic mutations

Photo courtesy Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Photo courtesy Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

A new study shows that a previous effort to rescue the Florida panther from extinction had some harmful side effects. 

The effort involved adding Texas pumas to the Florida panther population, which at its lowest was estimated to be at about 30. The effort was aimed at diversifying genetics.  

It was a success, but the University of Central Florida study shows that the Texas pumas brought with them some harmful genetic mutations that could  present with inbreeding. Here’s lead author Alexander Ochoa. 

“If the Florida panther were to shrink in size, then there is a risk that in-breeding could resume, and some of these deleterious mutations could emerge at the phenotypic level.” 

In other words, the mutations could cause physical defects and impact reproduction. Central American pumas also are responsible for some of the mutations.

Related: Toxin Exposure Eyed In Walking Abnormalities Among Florida Panthers

New Study Shows Florida Panther Breeding Program Helped Rescue Endangered State Animal

Dave Onorato is with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He says the study has important implications for other imperiled species. 

“This is now a methodology that they’ve shown that is effective at screening individuals in the future that might want to be used for subsequent genetic rescue attempts, and it can be applied to panthers or any number of other species that are having conservation problems.” 

The Florida panther -- the official state animal -- remains the most endangered of the state symbols with a population of between 120 and 230. 

Amy Green covers the environment and climate change at WMFE News. She is an award-winning journalist and author whose extensive reporting on the Everglades is featured in the book MOVING WATER, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, and podcast DRAINED, available wherever you get your podcasts. Amy’s work has been heard on NPR and seen in PEOPLE, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, among many other publications. She began her career at The Associated Press in Nashville, Tenn. Amy grew up in Florida and lives in Orlando with her 7-year-old daughter.