August 22, 2009
Whitish-gray shade unusual, biologist says
By Andrea Stetson
Special to The News-Press
Mark Lotz has been working with Florida panthers for 15 years, but he's never seen anything like the baby panthers he recently found in Collier County.
Instead of the typical tawny color with brown spots, these two male panthers are whitish-gray.
"They were healthy. Just the color of their fur was different," said Lotz, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther biologist.
"We have had some litters in the past that were lighter colors, but nothing like this. That's the lightest I've ever seen. I've seen nothing to that extreme." He found them July 20 when they were 5 to 6 days old.
One of Lotz's jobs is to examine panther kits; determine sex, weight, insert a transponder, take a biopsy sample, get a hair sample, deworm and record their general health.
The kits' mother has a transponder and was being watched; when a female doesn't leave the den for seven to nine days biologists assume she is giving birth.
When he checked the den and saw the whitish-gray panthers he said his reaction was disbelief.
"'These things are freaky looking,'" he said about his first thought when he saw them. "When you look in the den you are expecting to see the usual tan-colored babies and these looked like vulture chicks. They had that downy gray fur. It was weird looking."
The good news, Lotz said, is that they are normal healthy kittens.
The light gray kittens do have spots, but those, too, are unusual. Normally tawny kits have darker brown spots. These gray kits have ashy gray spots.
"I have no idea what causes it," Lotz said. "We have not documented anything like that before. I don't know if it's environmental or some genetic factor. We really don't have any idea."
Lotz believes that when they grow up their coloring will change and they will look like typical panthers.
"There's never been a gray cougar anywhere found. I don't think that trait is going to stick with them through adulthood," Lotz said. "There are no black panthers and likewise there have been no white panthers discovered either."
The biologist plans to set up some cameras near the den in the Flint Pen Unit of CREW land, so when the kits leave the nest at about 2 months of age, he can get a photo to see what color they are.
Larry Richardson, supervisory wildlife biologist for the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Ten Island National Wildlife Refuge, is also intrigued by the gray panthers.
"Change is the only constant," Richardson said. "As soon as you think you know what they look like they change appearance. It's interesting how different they look."
The panthers' mother, known as FP168, is a regular tawny panther. The father is unknown, but Richardson said there are no gray adult panthers. Lotz will return to the den and keep an eye out when the kits are about 2 months old. Normally kits would not be observed closely again, but Lotz will place a camera near the den to see if their color has changed when they start coming and going from the den with their mother at about 2 months old.
Ricky Pires, head of the Wings of Hope program at FGCU that brings panther education to hundreds of Lee and Collier County schoolchildren, plans to use photos of these panthers in her lessons this school year.
"Nature's so neat. You never know what's going to happen," Pires said.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org