Sentinel Staff Writer
March 21, 2007, 7:49 PM EDT
The Florida panther killed Wednesday on Interstate 4 may have been one of the famed "leaping kittens" captured on film during its youth in one of the most beloved wildlife photographs of the rare breed.
The male panther, nearly 4 years old, had long drawn the attention of researchers by preferring to prowl in wilderness far north of South Florida swamp and forests that are home to nearly all of the endangered cats.
Known as FP130, the panther captured hearts when photographed with its mother and a sibling when it was just about two months old. The photograph mostly circulated in research circles. Scientists aren't sure which of the two kittens in the photo has died because they weren't identified and tagged until after the picture was taken.
Scientists believe FP130 was one of three kittens born by another often-observed cat, FP 110, in late May 2003 in the soggy Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest near the Everglades. Less than two months later, mom and two kittens were romping through grass at the edge of a palmetto patch in the forest when they passed through an infrared beam, triggering the shutter of a remote camera.
Scientists eventually captured FP130 and fitted him with a radio-transmitter collar. Not long after the photo was taken, he set out on his own.
"It's like somebody lit his afterburners," said Layne Hamilton, manager of the Florida Panther and Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. "One day he was south of the Caloosahatchee River and the next day he was north of the river."
Problem was, none of his species followed FP 130 into Hardee County. Most panthers in Florida are south of Lake Okeechobee.
"Understandably he was looking for females," Hamilton said. "Which are not there."
Researchers studied FP130 for years. But batteries that powered his collar died last year and researchers lost track of him -- until Wednesday.
"I'll bet it's FP 130," said Hamilton, when first told that a panther was hit and killed near the Orange and Osceola county line. "He's one of the leaping kittens in a heart-throbbing picture."
State authorities were able to confirm the cat's identity by its collar. Few details about the accident were available.
A year ago, researchers found FP 130 settled in an area near Highlands Hammock State Park west of Sebring. The cat then was healthy and weighed 137 pounds.
Roughly a third of the 80 to 100 Florida panthers are wearing radio collars, which are attached to the cats when they are captured for health examinations. Between 10 to 20 Florida panthers are killed every year by diseases, fights and cars.
Why FP130 traveled into the Orlando area, a rare long-distance jaunt for panthers, wasn't a mystery to wildlife experts.
Males searching for a mate sometimes roam far from the South Florida wilds, said Mark Cunningham, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission veterinarian. Last year, a panther was hit by a car on Interstate 4 not far from where FP 130 died.
In previous years, male panthers have been killed on roads near Tampa and St. Augustine.
The biggest challenge for Florida panthers, and one that eventually may doom the species, is finding enough room to roam.
"Young males look for new territory and north is the only direction they can go," Cunningham said. "Their habitat is close to filled up down there."
Kevin Spear can be reached at 407-420-5062 or email@example.com.