Dr. Cathy Shropshire, a wildlife biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, gives Wildlife Mississippi Magazine (WM) the latest information on the Florida panther (Felis concolor). Panther, painter, cougar, catamount, puma, mountain lion or whatever the name used, the panther remains one of the most legendary and least understood mammals of North America. The answers Cathy provides will hopefully clear up some of the misconceptions about the panther and discuss its present status in Mississippi.
WM: Which panther species is native to Mississippi?
DR. SHROPSHIRE: While thirteen subspecies of Felis concolor have been identified north of Mexico, the subspecies native to Mississippi is the Florida panther, Felis concolor coryi. Unless otherwise noted, the remainder of this interview will discuss the Florida panther.
WM: What could be considered as panther habitat?
DR. SHROPSHIRE: Preferred habitat in Mississippi would be bottomland hardwood tracts along the Mississippi River having relatively low human populations or influences and well established white-tailed deer populations.
WM: Let’s talk about the present status of the panther in Mississippi. Scientists use the term “confirmed sighting” when discussing or referring to the panther’s whereabouts. What is a “confirmed sighting”?
DR. SHROPSHIRE: A confirmed sighting would be a dead or live captured animal, or documented tracks, droppings, hair, or other physical evidence. One should note that Florida panthers are protected by state and Federal law. It would constitute an illegal act to willfully kill one of these animals.
WM: What and where were some of the last confirmed reports of panthers in Mississippi and the Lower Mississippi Valley?
DR. SHROPSHIRE: A partial listing of panthers being killed or found dead would include: Montgomery County, Arkansas in 1949; Caddo Parish, Louisiana in 1965; near Hamburg, Arkansas in 1969; and in Logan County, Arkansas in 1975. A plaster cast of a tract was taken in 1975 in Concordia Parish, Louisiana, just across the Mississippi River from Natchez. It is believed that some of these may have been captive animals that had escaped or been released.
WM: Are there any reliable, but unconfirmed, panther sightings in Mississippi?
DR. SHROPSHIRE: Among the most credible sightings are reports from the Port Gibson, Mississippi area, Madison and Concordia Parishes in Louisiana, Washington and Sharkey Counties in the Delta, a sighting from the Mississippi River in the vicinity of Tennessee Bar (Issaquena County, Mississippi) and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in Hancock County. However, a research project funded by the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Fund in 1988 provided no “confirmed” evidence of wild panthers in Hancock County.
WM: Why aren’t more panther sightings documented?
DR. SHROPSHIRE: The number of panthers in the wild is extremely small. Being secretive in nature, they move little during daylight hours and leave little sign. If a panther is sighted or tracks are found, often the person(s) having knowledge of the sighting does not immediately notify the proper authorities so that documentation (i.e. confirmed tracks) can be established. When authorities have been immediately notified, the tracts often turn out to be either destroyed by the wind or rain or to have been made by a large dog.
WM: Do panthers presently exist in Mississippi?
DR. SHROPSHIRE: There is a definite possibility that panthers could be present in Mississippi and that they are sighted or heard by humans. However, rather than permanent residents, these animals are more likely transient in nature. An individual panther¹s tracks have been found over areas of 200 square miles or more in a given 30 day period in Florida.