Florida Panther Killed On I-95
Endangered cat isn't usually seen in northern Florida
By PETER GUINTA -
St. Augustine Record
June 7, 2005
Looking for love in all the wrong places, a 6-foot-long, 120-pound male
Florida panther was killed on Interstate 95 in St. Johns County June 3rd or 4th, 2005.
Mark Cunningham, a veterinarian with the Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission, said Monday that he had performed a necropsy on
the animal and said it was probably hit by a vehicle and killed instantly.
"Otherwise, he was healthy and in good condition, probably about 3 years
old," Cunningham said. "He had a lot of good fat reserves."
Male Florida panthers range widely, seeking females. That can mean crossing
busy highways and risking death, Cunningham said.
"They can go anywhere. There was one killed in Tampa on Interstate 4 two
years ago. Another one with a radio collar on crossed I-4 once," he
said. "If they're not finding females, they keep searching and searching."
Wildlife officials said the panther population in South Florida rarely
strays north of the Calusahatchee River in Southwest Florida.
Joy Hill of the Conservation Commission said experts have said the dead
animal was indeed a Florida panther.
"It does not look like a pet cougar that escaped," she said. "This is the
farthest the Florida panther has ranged since the restoration project."
She was referring to a project started in the mid 1990s in South Florida to
re-introduce the nearly extinct Florida Panther back into the state's
wilderness areas. It worked, to a point -- from a population of about 30
panthers, there are now 87 big cats, not including kittens.
The carcass was spotted Saturday morning, just north of the Flagler County
line on I-95 by Mayor Frank Charles of St. Augustine Beach.
Charles said he was driving to his business in Palm Coast and spotted the
cat in the left-hand lane. He got on his cell phone and called authorities.
"Cars were swerving," Charles said Monday. "The paw was close to the line
in the road."
Ironically, a walkover for wildlife is just 100 yards south of where the
animal was hit, he said.
Sarah Owen of St. Augustine Beach, planning advocate for the Florida
Wildlife Federation, said there had always been anecdotal stories about
Florida panthers ranging in St. Johns County.
"If this one was not tagged, there's a panther population out there and we
need to start planning for their habitat conservation," Owen said. "You can
never exclude that (idea). Now we have an actual body."
She said this death could have statewide significance as people reconsider
the panther's numbers.
"In recent years their numbers have been increasing, and now we've just
lost one," she said. "But we're not going to get too excited until we find
out through DNA testing where it's from."
Cunningham said the same thing -- a DNA test is required because there was
an experiment in North Florida three years ago that involved releasing
sterilized Texas cougars to find out if a second population of Florida
panthers could survive there. Some of the vasectomies given to those cats
were not effective and they began breeding, he said.
"I couldn't tell the difference at necropsy," he said. "This one did not
have some of the characteristics of the pure, inbred Florida panthers. I
still think it was a Florida panther, but I don't want to rule out that
this could be connected to that project."
He said the DNA results won't be back for several months.
"This is a sad deal for this animal," he said. "He traveled a long way. He
needed to turn around and head back to South Florida."
Panthers are rare, elusive, at risk From bigcatrescue.org
Nobody knows exactly how many panthers are left in Florida.
Maybe 80 to 100 panthers still roam the state's pinelands, hardwood
hammocks, and swamps, making it one of the rarest and most endangered
mammals in the world.
Adult males may range over an area of 200 square miles, while females range
over a 70- to 80-square-mile area.
They are very solitary animals. An adult maintains a home range to live,
hunt and, if female, raises its young alone. A male panther's home range
averages 275 square miles and overlaps with the smaller home ranges of
females. Panthers maintain boundaries by marking with scents. They rarely
fight over territory.
Panthers are most active at dusk and dawn and can travel 15 to 20 miles a
day, often moving in a zig-zag pattern, though they tend to rest during the
daytime, travel and hunt during the cooler hours of the night. They can
swim and will cross wide bodies of water. They have a keen sense of smell
and excellent depth perception but lack the panoramic view that deer have.
They can run up to 35 m.p.h. but only for a few hundred yards, their
preferred method of hunting is to creep up as close to their prey as
possible and launch a short spring attack. Panthers do become used to man-
made noises and frequently cross roads. When humans approach an area they
will either be still, disappear, or attempt to circle behind. Panthers can
live 12 to 15 years in the wild. A male can measure 7 to 8 feet from the
nose to tail tip and weight 100 to 160 pounds. Females are about 6 feet in
length and weight 60 to 100 pounds.
Panthers are built to hunt live prey. Deer and wild hogs are their
preferred food, but when these are not available, panthers will eat
raccoons, armadillos and even alligators. While they are good sprinters,
panthers rarely chase prey for long distances. Instead, prey is singled
out, stalked and ambushed.
The biggest threats to the panthers that escape are being hit by cars, their
health and continuing loss of habitat. Florida panthers have an unusually
large number of health problems. Most are related to poor habitat
conditions and genetic defects.
Most of the remaining panthers live in or near Big Cypress National
Preserve and Everglades National Park. The National Park Service is
cooperating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state organizations
to bring about recovery of the Florida panther.
In 1989, data collected from 29 radio-collared panthers indicated that the
population was losing genetic diversity at a rate of three to seven percent
yearly. Researchers believed that the gene pool would continue to erode
even if the population stabilized, leading to extinction within 40 years.
Three years later, with the health of the population continuing to decline,
biologists made a controversial decision. In an effort to increase genetic
diversity, wildlife managers introduced several female Texas cougars -- the
closest remaining cougar population that had historically shared Florida
panther range -- into the Florida panther population in 1995. Several
hybrid litters have since been produced, and the introduction seems to have
corrected some of the problems experts generally attribute to inbreeding.
Experts are still debating the role of the Texas cougars in panther
Despite the success of this effort, panthers are still at great risk of
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