Waterways Episode 267 – Florida Panthers 2013 AND Pharmaceuticals in our Waters

♪♪ This week on Waterways, Florida Panthers a
conservation success story; and pharmaceuticals
in our waters. A few days each month
Mark Parry sits at his computer in Everglades National
Park’s Daniel Beard Center analyzing photographs. Wild turkeys, feral pigs,
black bears, gray fox. All interesting images,
but these photos are only “by-catch”-meaning these
animals are not the species he’s targeting
with his lens. Mark is looking for photos of
the endangered Florida panther. Puma, catamount, mountain lion, panther, there are many names
for these large cats. Years ago, there were
thought to be 24 subspecies of mountain lion. Today, using
modern genetic testing, biologists now know there
are far fewer subspecies – somewhere between 4 and 6
with the Florida panther being one of them. This sub-species existed
throughout the East coast; it was in Louisiana; it was in
Georgia; it was everywhere. They were very widespread. This is the last
place they are. Historically, the Florida
panther inhabited the entire southeastern United States. However, following European
colonization of North America, most of the panther
population was eliminated due to multiple factors;
there was widespread habitat destruction as forests
were cleared for farmland. Their prey base was
decimated to feed a young country’s
growing population; and the panthers themselves
were excessively hunted because they were viewed as a
danger to humans and livestock. The East coast was the
first to be colonized and, you know, you’ve got
this fierce predator, and so the predator
is eliminated. And so it’s
consistently eliminated. And before long, you know,
there are no panthers anymore. And so, the only place that
panthers could possibly be would be in Florida and
the remotest areas. Because of the vast stretches
of uninhabitable landscape in what are now Everglades
National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve,
the last remaining panther populations were able to
find refuge and survive. It’s here, in
Everglades National Park, that field biologist Mark
Parry has strategically placed 38 cameras in 29
locations spread over 200 square miles. These cameras will help
resource managers monitor the regional population
of Florida panthers. Every six weeks, Mark crawls
through thickets overgrown with poison ivy, poisonwood,
and invasive Brazilian pepper – all to ensure his cameras
are working properly. Cameras have gotten
a whole lot better. You used to have to
visit them almost weekly, just because they burned
up batteries so quickly. My biggest problem
out here really is, once it starts raining, the
vegetation growing in front of the cameras. All of this energy and
commitment from the staff at Everglades National Park and
Big Cypress National Preserve is for one goal: The survival of the
endangered Florida panther. In the 1980s, south
Florida’s panther population was down to only 20
to 30 individuals. Today, they are on the
rebound with an estimated population of around 120. To many, this is an endangered
species success story. In 1973, the Florida
panther was placed on the Endangered Species list. Although it was not known
exactly how many panthers were left, it was known that
the numbers were low enough to be a major
concern to scientists. The gene pool was shrinking
for these animals and the effects were obvious. What was found in the early
years of panther research, is that the panthers
were in poor condition. Their blood levels, their
muscling just wasn’t good. They just didn’t seem
to be in good condition. The big clincher that made
the agencies realize that something really needed to
be done was when several male panthers were caught, that
had no descended testicles. So, it was realized that
these animals were spiraling into extinction and something
needed to be done. In order to save the
Florida panther, an interagency decision
was made by key agencies – among them the US Fish
and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission, and the National Park Service – to recruit genes from a
separate gene pool from the cat’s closest relatives-
mountain lions from west Texas. In 1995, eight female,
adult female panthers, from Texas were
brought to South Florida and re-introduced into
different locations. The idea, the concept was
that these females would reproduce with a male
Florida panther and they would bring some new genetic
material into this population. Resource managers
placed two west Texas female cats in
Everglades National Park, four in Big Cypress
National Preserve, and two in Fakahatchee
Strand Preserve State Park. And the next
thing you know, over a relatively very
short period of time, in, now that’s what,
not quite 20 years ago? In that period of time,
we’ve gone from maybe 20-30 individuals to
last count of known, that we knew
absolute estimates of, to 120, in just 20 years. Now you’re talking about
an animal that breeds about every two years. And, it’s remarkable! I mean, the animals
are spreading out. They’re moving in and
inhabiting areas that they hadn’t been in
for a long time, and some people
thought, well, that’s not
panther habitat, well, as it turns out,
lo and behold, it is panther habitat. They’re primarily active during
dawn and dusk and after dark. In the wintertime, you get
more daytime images because they’re out and
they’re more active. Cats are fairly
heat sensitive. I’d say, typically if you
were going to average it across the year, I’d say
probably 90 percent or better of our images of panthers
are at dark or dawn and dusk. Mark places cameras
in locations that funnel the panthers directly
in front of the lens. The more pictures
Mark has of a panther, the easier it is to
identify the individual. Trying to distinguish between
panthers is difficult. A kink in the tail,
cowlicks on the back, dominant scars,
tears in the ears; even people who have been
working on panthers for many, many years have
trouble telling them apart from one another. One of the things
I’ve been doing, is using photo-editing
software to get in on those specks calculate the
ratios between them, ‘cause they change. You can’t just necessarily
look at it and say, oh there’s the same pattern. But that ratio doesn’t
really change between them, so you find a few that are
pretty obvious and you can pull those out of different
photos run that on them again it’s essentially like
looking at a constellation and you can tell you’re
looking at the same animal. So while he still might
be uncertain about which panther he is
looking at in a photo, Mark is much more certain about
threats to their survival. The threats come
mostly from humans. While there is occasional
cat-on-cat mortality, most panther deaths
result from collisions with cars and trucks.
But the largest threat to the survival of this
species is loss of habitat. That’s the biggest threat. Not having the habitat and
the habitat continues to be destroyed for
various reasons, for development, for
roadways. A lot of people are working
hard to not have that happen but, not only do
we need to stop, stop losing habitat, but we
need to restore some of it and make it available
to cats again. Each male panther needs up to
125 square miles of habitat that overlaps with
a females range of roughly 25 square miles. These numbers can change
depending on the quality of the available habitat. Resource managers believe
the panther population in Big Cypress National
Preserve to be saturated and in need of more space. This need is dispersing
panthers into more populated communities west
of Big Cypress, such as the city of Naples. In 2012 alone, 20 pet
and livestock deaths were attributed to panthers. Ever since the first
recovery plan was written in the 1970s, one of the top
goals was to establish two additional permanent
populations in the panther’s historic range. According to a 2003 study by
the University of Tennessee, two of the best potential
locations for panther reintroduction
were in Arkansas; another, in Georgia. We have already
documented a male in north Florida
and in Georgia. They ended up being dead and
the genetics work was done on them and it was shown
that they did come from south Florida. So we believe that there’s
potential for north of north Florida-Georgia interface
to support a population of panthers if the
public supports it. What it’s going to come down
to, ultimately is how willing people are to make
some concessions to live, not only in
proximity with these cats, but to give them areas
where they can survive; where they can continue to
reproduce and to live and give them corridors
where they can move from one population to the next, so,
we don’t have the genetic bottle-necking that
almost wiped them out. As with any endangered
species success story there needs to be public support
for continued success. Is there public support in
northern Florida or Georgia or Arkansas to relocate some
of south Florida’s panthers to try and
jumpstart new populations? These new population pockets
could help enhance genetic diversity, strengthening the
panther population as a whole, but without a strong education
campaign behind it, any panther reintroductions
could meet the same opposition that wolf reintroductions
were up against in the western United States. But the reason that the agencies
haven’t taken panthers from south Florida where the
population is saturated and relocated them into other
areas is because of not having the public
support to do so. And that’s understandable,
because this is a predator because it has been
documented that the cougars, the mountain lions out West,
have indeed killed people. That they eat white-tailed
deer and white-tailed deer are a favorite hunting
recreational hunting animal for some. So, it’s just the chronic
difficulty that we have in reintroducing a potentially
threatening predator into where people live. Just as communities in
south Florida have learned to live with these
top predators, communities farther north
could learn to co-exist with the Florida panther as well. It may well be essential for
their continued success. I believe it has been
a success story. I believe that we started
the work just in time to save the panther. I think we already
have a success story, but I think we could have
a second success story by getting panthers in other parts
of their historic range. Each year in July,
hundreds of divers and snorkelers visit the coral
reefs of Looe Key for a very unique event; the
Underwater Music Festival. Subsurface speakers fill the
shallow reef with music and messages about coral
reef conservation, while costumed divers mug
for underwater cameras. Divers here practice the
old aquatic adage “take only photos and
leave only bubbles, yet scientists theorized
that they were actually leaving something else
here five miles offshore, something worth
further study. But we figured out that
that’s probably one of the largest concentrations
of people in the water at a given time that we can predict. You can go to other reefs
and you know maybe you have a lot of divers in one
week and maybe you don’t. But you know with the
underwater festival, the underwater
music festival, we knew that we were going
to have a set of people in the water for a short
period of time. Dr. Piero Gardinali is a
professor of Chemistry at Florida International
University and researcher for the Southeast Environmental
Research Center. His specialty is finding
trace compounds or microscopic combinations
of elements and chemicals in freshwater and
coastal environments. With the
Underwater Music Festival, Piero found a unique
research opportunity. So we looked into it and I said,
well why don’t we just go and sample before, during
and after the festival and see what we get? And eventually we published
a paper about it and we did find caffeine in the water;
we did find traces of the hormones in the water. Doctor Gardinali tested for
caffeine not because he is worried about caffeine’s
effect on the environment; but rather the presence
of caffeine would be an indicator that there may be
other elements in the water from a human source;
compounds that are created to have biological effects;
pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics and hormones. Scientists have long been
aware of the connection between good water quality
and the health of coral reef and seagrass ecosystems. Florida Keys National Marine
Sanctuary’s Water Quality Protection Program, with
the direct management of the Environmental Protection
Agency and the state of Florida’s Department of
Environmental Protection, has been studying
the coral reefs, seagrass and water quality of
the Florida Keys since 1994. One such monitoring program
studies a variety of water quality parameters,
including temperature, salinity, turbidity, dissolved
oxygen and excess nutrients, all known factors affecting
water quality and the health of the marine environment. But a piece of the Florida
Keys water quality puzzle not yet thoroughly studied
is the presence of man-made compounds and
pharmaceuticals, and their potential effects
on the plants and animals that call those
waters home. And all the pharmaceuticals
that we use, our bodies don’t
use them all up. All of our birth
control pills, all our different
medications that we have for all these
different ailments, they pass through our bodies
the go into our sewage systems. So I said, well you
know I wonder if it could be that connection
between what we put in the sink that goes in to the septic
and gets into the environment? So I looked for caffeine. So we picked a
couple of places, you know the
Miami River was one, and one of my students and
myself we went and collected samples, and it was there. You know, in front of us,
we detected caffeine in the Miami River. During the years
1999 and 2000, the US Geological Survey
conducted a study of 139 streams across the country
and detected pharmaceutical compounds in 80 percent
of the streams sampled. There’s one type of
pharmaceutical that has scientists especially
nervous about finding in our waters called,
endocrine disrupters. The endocrine
system in an animal, including humans, is
the system of glands that secrete and
control hormones. For example: the pituitary
gland produces a hormone that regulates growth; the
adrenal glands produce a hormone that regulates
the fight or flight reflex; ovaries produce a hormone
that regulates reproduction. As the name implies,
endocrine disrupters stop or change the biological effect of
a hormone on a living organism. For example, human birth
control pills change a woman’s fertility. However, when these
disruptors get into the marine environment, they
now have the potential to interrupt or change the
reproductive system in fishes and invertebrates. There’s been work done in
freshwater lakes that show that things that get into the
water in low concentrations can cause masculinization of fishes,
that is fish that would normally be female start
to developing male organs. Alligators have the same
problem In Lake Apopka, it’s been found that most
of the alligators there have been masculinized,
turned into males. So that these things
that get into the water, either through people putting
them down the sink or toilet. But why have we not heard
about this issue before now? Surely, these
contaminants have been in the environment
for years. The ability to test for
these things in lower concentrations has
developed and we’re now seeing these things in water
which we never saw before because we didn’t have
the ability to test for those low concentrations. Possible endocrine disrupters
may find their way into our environment not just
through pharmaceuticals, but through personal care
products like antibacterial chemicals found in
hand sanitizers, flame retardant chemicals
found in most clothing and building materials, or
even chemicals in insect repellents, sunscreens,
fragrances, and, plastics. So it’s not only
a sewage issue, where the thing can go
through the waste treatment plant, it’s also a solid
waste issue where plastics can have this effect on
non-target organisms. Plasticizers are
added to plastics to increase flexibility
and many have endocrine disrupter features, or
chemicals which can mimic compounds such as estrogen
and cause problems with endocrine systems of the
animals that ingest them. You get a piece of plastic
that you pick up on the beach and it’s
brittle and it snaps. And that used to be a part of a
very flexible plastic bottle. And the reason that it’s not
flexible anymore is that all of the plasticizers
that were in that piece of plastic have gone out of
that plastic and gone into the waters. So a fish
is developing and it’s undergoing its own growth
and all of a sudden it starts taking in an
endocrine disrupter from a plastic bottle that’s
breaking down in the water; that can change the
whole reproductive characteristics of
that fish species. In the Florida Keys, one
of the victories for the marine conservation
effort in the past decade has been the construction of
wastewater treatment plants and conversion from old septic
systems and cesspits to central processing
facilities. In addition to the
removal of solids, waste water treatment has
traditionally been designed to remove agents
that are regulated, such as pathogens,
viruses and bacteria. Though there are very
few treatment plants that actually remove dissolved
pharmaceuticals before releasing treated effluent
back into the environment, it can be done. Most of these compounds get
degraded when exposed to UV light, or strong
oxidants like ozone. Carbon filtration is
also effective at removing certain contaminants from
wastewater. How wide-spread is
the availability of all these new fancy
techniques and I would say it’s an economic question
more than anything else. If your source of
drinking water, you know the water that
you take into your plant is relatively clean and the
waste water that you put in your wastewater treatment
plant is not affecting your drinking water then usually
the system doesn’t have those advanced treatments. Upgrading the capabilities of a
local or regional wastewater treatment plant to remove
pharmaceuticals may one day be implemented; that
is, if the cost-benefit is deemed worthy of
the expenditure. However, there is something
everybody can do to help make sure the amount of
these compounds in our waters remain at
harmless levels. It is essential for the
health of our waters that people properly dispose of
unused or expired medicine. Do not flush medicine
down the toilet or throw it in the trash. To properly dispose of your
pharmaceutical waste please contact your local
waste management service. In the Florida Keys, you
may drop off your unused medicine at Monroe County
Sheriff’s substations. Many pharmacies will
also accept expired or unwanted prescriptions. I am worried though that we are
putting chemicals out in the environment that we don’t fully
know what the consequences are. And again, I don’t
want to alarm anybody, all I’m saying is
that we just have to understand what they do. And it would be a good idea
for every chemical that is produced that not only do
you do your typical you know human risk and
animal risk and so on, but at some point in time you
do an environmental risk. When it comes to
good water quality, there’s more
than meets the eye. Thankfully, the long-term
monitoring efforts of the Florida Keys National Marine
Sanctuary Water Quality Protection Program enable
resource managers to detect changes in the
marine environment, and in turn create
management policies to address them. Yet as new threats emerge,
additional science is needed to understand these dangers and their effects on
the environment.


  1. Some of the comments here are disgusting. I can't wait for the invasive species called humans to kill themselves with nuclear gases.

  2. They're just not down in the Everglades area, they're up here in Northwest Florida where I live also….because I've seen one in the swamps along the Choctawhatchee river….maybe not as many, but they're here..

  3. There is a panther that lives around my house. We see it so frequently that we get worried if we don't see it for a few days. They are in North FL, and it is AWESOME!

  4. Endangered Florida panthers are struggling to walk, and wildlife officials don't know why

  5. Endangered Florida panthers are struggling to walk, and wildlife officials don't know why

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