Rare Florida panther kittens spotted outside known breeding range

March 28, 2017, 1:55 p.m.

Florida panthers have crossed another major milestone as they claw back from near-extinction, Florida wildlife officials announced this week. And while any progress for these endangered cats is good news, this one comes with a bonus: kittens.

After a female panther was confirmed on the north side of the Caloosahatchee River in late 2016 — the first such sighting in more than 40 years — trail cameras have made another sighting there, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) reported on March 27. The photos show an adult female, likely the same one from last year, plus at least two panther kittens.

For nearly half a century, the only known breeding population of Florida panthers was south of the river. While males sometimes go north to avoid conflict with rivals in their core range, no female panther had been seen on the north side since 1973. And not only has at least one female finally returned to this ancestral habitat, but apparently she feels safe enough to reproduce.

"This is good news for Florida panther conservation," says Kipp Frohlich, deputy director for the FWC's Division of Habitat and Species Conservation, in a statement. "Until now, we only had evidence of panthers breeding south of the Caloosahatchee. These pictures of a female with kittens indicate there are now panthers breeding north of the river."

Here are three shots of the young panthers. They're blurry, but photographing kittens isn't easy, even for an automatic camera:

Florida panther kitten

Florida panther kitten

Florida panther kitten (Photos: Florida Fish and Wildlife/Flickr)

Florida panthers are endangered, and it's estimated there are no more than 230 of them left in the wild.

A trail camera north of the Caloosahatchee first revealed what appeared to be a female panther in 2015. The following summer, biologists set up more cameras that captured more images north of the river, but they still couldn't confirm that cat's gender.

In November 2016, however, a biologist found female panther tracks near one of the cameras that had snapped some of the photos. Because male panther tracks are so much larger than female prints, the biologists felt the tracks confirmed their findings and the gender of the panther. Here's one of the photos showing the adult female last fall:

Florida panther captured on a trail camera This female Florida panther was captured on a trail camera north of the Caloosahatchee River in 2016. (Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife/Flickr)

"This appears to be the milestone we've hoped for. We have been working with landowners to secure wildlife corridors to help panthers travel from south Florida, cross the river and reach this important panther habitat," Larry Williams of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said last year. "While we do not know if this female used these tracts of land, we do know that securing lands that facilitate the natural expansion of the panther population are critical to achieving full recovery."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was originally published.