By Jeremy Cox
Originally published — 5:33 p.m., May 9, 2007
Updated — 8:17 a.m., May 9, 2007
The death of a reclusive female panther Tuesday night on U.S. 1 in southern Miami-Dade County may signal that the rare species is expanding its territory, a state biologist said Wednesday.
The 3-year-old panther was hit by a vehicle about 10 miles east of Everglades National Park, where a small cluster of panthers roam amid marshes and soggy pine forests.
"It's kind of far away from where the rest of the population is in Everglades National Park," said Mark Lotz of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"It's plausible that was a regular part of her home range."
Panthers once ranged across the southeastern U.S. until pressure from hunters and bulldozers chased what remained of their numbers into Southwest Florida.
By 1995, scientists estimated that only one male panther inhabited the Everglades and that the total population numbered about 30 cats, with most in Big Cypress National Preserve.
That year, eight female Texas cougars, genetic cousins of the Florida panther, were introduced in Southwest Florida. The experiment was a success, with panther numbers soaring to near 100.
The population in Everglades National Park has grown, but the exact size is unknown because no one has surveyed the area, Lotz said. The female that was struck Tuesday night wasn't wearing a radio collar, so scientists probably will never know where the animal came from.
Unlike males, who may wander dozens of miles in search of territory to call their own, females typically don't venture far from their birthplace, Lotz said. So the presence of one female cat often signals that other cats are nearby.
Indeed, a male panther was killed on Card Sound Road in February 2006 about two miles southeast of Tuesday's strike. The southeast corner of Miami-Dade County probably will never host many panthers, Lotz added, because it's a "dead-end road."
After a state Fish and Wildlife officer scraped the dead panther off the road, the cat was driven to the agency's Naples office and placed in a freezer. Biologists will take the panther to Gainesville today for a necropsy, which is to animals what an autopsy is to humans.
The panther was the eighth vehicle death of the year, putting the endangered species on pace for 22 road run-ins this year. That would demolish last year's record of 11 vehicle-related deaths for one year.