Researchers have sequenced the genome of the Florida panther as well as that of the Texas cougar, the Tampa Bay Times reports. Texas cougars were introduced into Florida in 1995 to boost the Florida cats' numbers — there were only about 30 left in the wild — and combat health issues that were cropping up from inbreeding, it adds.
Researchers led by the University of Arizona's Melanie Culver sequenced the genomes of 10 cats, including Florida panthers, Texas cougars, and their offspring. As they report in G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics, the researchers found that the introduction of the Texas cats increased the genetic diversity of the Florida populations.
They in particular noted expansions of gene families involved in neuronal and embryological development, and though they found a contraction of gene families associated with olfactory receptors, they did find expansion in gene families linked to sensory perception, especially visual ability. "We believe there's a trade-off between the development of genes related to the sense of smell and the development of genes related to vision, because pumas are nocturnal hunters," first author Alexander Ochoa from Ohio State University says in a statement.
Culver tells the Tampa Bay Times that they next plan to investigate other possible ramification of this crossbreeding work to determine, for instance, if all the genes introduced from the Texas cats were beneficial or if some were neutral or even detrimental to the Florida ones.