For the first time in nearly 45 years, a promising sign for the future of an endangered species has been discovered.

Florida wildlife biologists said they have confirmed the presence of at least two panther kittens north of the Caloosahatchee River for the first time since 1973.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, Kipp Frohlich of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said “This is good news for the Florida panther conservation. 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.”

Florida panthers were once prominent in all southeastern states, but by the 1970s the population had taken a big hit, leaving a very small portion of the species confined in what was left of the wilderness in southwest Florida. At one point, the population had dropped to as few as 20 to 30, with a majority suffering from genetic defects from inbreeding.

For a long time, experts saw the Caloosahatchee as a “major obstacle” for female panthers moving north. “This verification of kittens with the female demonstrates panthers can expand their breeding territory across the river naturally,” said wildlife commission’s panther team leader Darrell Land.

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