Mystery disorder strikes Florida panthers

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State and federal wildlife officials are investigating a mysterious neurologic disorder affecting a small number of Florida panthers and bobcats in the southwest part of the state.

Florida wildlife officials are asking the public to help identify the cause of a neurologic problem spotted in endangered panthers. (Photo by John and Karen Hollingsworth/USFWS)

As of September, trail cameras in Collier, Sarasota, and Lee counties had documented eight of the endangered panthers, mostly kittens, and one adult bobcat exhibiting various degrees of hind limb weakness and difficulty walking. One panther photographed in Charlotte County may also have been affected.

Although necropsies confirmed neurologic damage in a panther and a bobcat, the cause was undetermined, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"While numerous diseases and possible causes including distemper, cerebellar hypoplasia, and degenerative myelopathy have been considered, a definitive cause has not been determined," Carli Segelson, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an email. "The FWC is testing for various potential toxins, including neurotoxic rodenticide, as well as infectious diseases and nutritional deficiencies."

Most Florida panthers make their homes south of Lake Okeechobee, but the large cats have been spotted throughout the Florida peninsula and as far north as Georgia. The Florida panther is an endangered species, with estimates of the number of adult panthers remaining in the wild ranging from 120-230 individuals.

Wildlife officials are unsure how widespread the disorder might be. Panthers are notoriously difficult to spot in the wild, and most of the evidence of sick animals comes from videos. "The FWC has evidence of less than 10 animals, including the bobcat. It is at times difficult to tell if some of the affected animals are ones that have already been documented," Segelson acknowledged.

The FWC has deployed additional trail cameras as part of the investigation, which involves the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and "a wide array of experts from around the world," the agency said.

The public can assist by submitting trail camera footage or other videos showing animals stumbling or otherwise having trouble with their hind limbs. Contact the FWC for more information on how to share those videos at Panther [dot] SightingsatMyFWC [dot] com (Panther[dot]Sightings[at]MyFWC[dot]com).