Blacksburg, Va. -- When researchers andpolicymakers consider the best ways to protect an endangered species,the phrase "best available science" is frequently used to describe thescientific basis behind decisions that are aimed at preserving naturalhabitat and preventing further decline in species population.
However, the "best available science" has been shortchanging theFlorida panther, according to an article by Liza Gross in the PulbicLibrary of Science Biology (Aug. 23, 2005) and a report to be publishedin the January 2006 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management (BeierP, Vaughan M, Conroy M, Quigley H. "Deconstructing flawed scientificinferences about the Florida panther.").
Since 2002, fisheries and wildlife science professor Mike Vaughan hasbeen one of four members of a Science Review Team put in place toreview the research of the State of Florida and the U.S. Fish andWildlife Service (FWS) on one of the country's most endangered species:the Florida panther. As a team member and an expert on large carnivoreecology, Vaughan reviewed more than 20 years and 3,000 pages ofscientific literature based on Florida panther research.
His analysis revealed serious flaws in their research and understandingof habitat requirements for the panthers. Vaughan pointed out thatalthough the existing research conducted and adhered to by the FWS andState of Florida was loaded with what he called "improper inferences,"it still was "taken as gospel once it was published, and [therefore]this flawed research keeps being cited."
The idea of reviewing research on the Florida panther was first broughtto Vaughan's attention by his former Ph.D. student John Kasbohm, whowas the coordinator of the Florida panther recovery program for theU.S. FWS.
As Vaughan and his colleagues reviewed the data gathered in the pantherresearch, they quickly identified a major source of oversight in theservice's analysis of panther habitat requirements. The researcherscollected only daytime activity data on the Florida feline and failedto acknowledge the cat's nocturnal nature.
Not realizing that a panther's nighttime activity may cover greaterarea than during the day, the federal and state researchers madegeneralizations from the daytime data to cover an entire 24-hourperiod. This led to the unfounded conclusion that panthers wouldn'ttravel more than 90 meters outside of a forested area. Furthermore,numerous decisions related to development and land use in Florida haveresulted from the FWS' erroneous assumptions that fail to acknowledgethe panther's true range of coverage.
The work of the Science Review Team and Vaughan recently led the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service to revise its guidelines. The Florida pantherpopulation has been increasing from 40 to 50 cats in 1995 toapproximately 80 today, and Vaughan suggests this positive trend cancontinue by "reanalyzing existing data and gathering more data onkitten survival so that population growth and reproductive rates can bemodeled."
Is it a panther, wildcat, cougar, puma, or mountain lion?
Within North America, the names "panther, wildcat, cougar, and mountainlion" are used interchangeably to describe a large, predatory feline.When asked what the difference is among these varieties, Mike Vaughanexplains that they are genetically all the same. Vaughan bases thisnotion on the studies of a former wildlife science research associateMelanie Culver, who examined the genetic composition of each cat.Vaughan attributes the difference in terminology to regionaldistinctions and minor variations in physical features like skull size.In fact, Vaughan adds "relocation studies with the Texas cougar inFlorida have shown the large carnivore can adapt, intermingle with thenative panther, and thrive its new environment."
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