Over the years, one, maybe two, Florida Panther sightings on average per year have been reported on Marco Island. The excited and surprised observer usually reporting a glimpse of golden fur and a long tail…then an adrenaline rush when the realization just moments later that a panther just dashed through their line of sight! Stories are told from days past on Marco Island, when houses were sparse and roads were quiet, of panther cubs being raised on Inlet Drive; pairs of cats walking the beaches and panthers seen in the mangrove fringe of Barfield Bay. Just in the past year, panther sightings have increased. There have been a couple reports of a panther crossing at the east side of the Jolly Bridge; several sightings by bike riders, dog walkers and drivers on Horr’s Island (Key Marco); residents in the estates area and in Hideaway seeing the cats in their yards or along the road; and most recently, one early morning before the sun had cracked through, a sighting of a panther in Mackle Park.
This big carnivorous cat is primarily a nocturnal hunter, so active during the night and early morning hours. This is when one could be most likely seen crossing a road or along the side of a road. This is when the reports have come in. (Though, there was one rare report of a mid day sighting in Hideaway.) Are they dangerous to humans? There has never been a documented attack by a Florida Panther on a human being. These large carnivores are potentially dangerous, but extremely rare and shy – just seeing one is a once-in-a-lifetime event for most people. The people who have reported seeing panthers on Marco Island have described a sense that the panther is more afraid and cautious of them. Typical reports include that the panther stops, stares and then runs for cover quickly away from the observer.
The panther sighting reports are not farfetched. Marco Island, as part of the 10,000 Islands, is the Florida Panther’s (Puma concolor coryii) ever-shrinking territory. Historically, the Florida Panthers’, also known as a cougar or mountain lion, territory covered all of Florida, into Georgia and as far north as Arkansas. Needing large areas of sparsely populated lands with a healthy population of prey, such as white-tailed deer or wild boar, it now has only 5% of this historical range. There is one breeding population of Florida Panthers, with an estimated one hundred adults, living primarily in southwest Florida, from the southern Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp into Lee County. The Caloosahatchee River seems to be a “hard” boundary for this species. A few young male panthers have ventured north of this river, needing approximately 200 square miles of home range but no breeding has occurred in the northern areas, as no females have been found north of the river.
But have you seen a panther or a bobcat? Since the Florida Bobcat (Felis rufus) is so abundant throughout North American and have adapted in both rural and urban settings of Florida, this wild cat is not listed for protection, but Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission licenses are required for hunting. Bobcats are seen frequently in Marco Island neighborhoods bordering Barfield Bay ordense, wooded areas, and can be easily mistaken for a panther sighting. Since bobcats only sleep two to three hours at a time, it is not uncommon to see a bobcat out during the day. Weighing only 15 to 35 lbs., their prey is small mammals and mostly birds. Bobcats attacking a person are extremely rare. Like all wild animals, they should not be fed or they will associate humans with food and lose their instinctive fear of humans.
If you suspect you have seen a panther, here are some tips to not confuse a sighting with other large mammals such as bobcats, dogs, coyotes and even bears: Visually, the panther is very large in size, ranging from 60 lbs. (juvenile) to over 150 lbs. (adult male) and can be up to seven (7) feet long from nose tip to tail end, is tawny or golden in color, and has a long tail. In contrast, Florida Bobcats typically do not exceed 35 lbs., have a spotted coat and a short “bobbed” tail. Young panthers, kittens, are spotted like bobcats, but the spots disappear within a year and their tails are much longer. Tracks are an easy way to identify if a panther has been around. First and foremost, they are large, measuring 3 inches by 3.5 inches with no claw imprints. Even the young panther just leaving its mother’s den will have paw prints larger than an adult bobcat. If claws are noted in an imprint, it is a telltale sign that the print is from a dog or coyote. If it is large, but has five toes, it is a bear print; panthers have only four toes.
With the habitat loss and reduction to one small breeding population, the Florida Panther is one of the most endangered species in the nation. It is an iconic animal to Florida and North America. Listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s goal is to conserve and recover this species using multi-faceted conservation strategies such as the following:
• Florida Panther Protection Program and the Recovery Plan of 2008.
• Refuge Expansion – The “Dispersal Zone” an area in northern Lee County is a strategic area that needs protection to extend a northern breeding range.
• Key Areas for Road Crossing – Last year there were seventeen (17) panther deaths caused by vehicle collision.
• Science – Continuing population counts, collaring, studying habitat functions. Panthers are “umbrella species” or their habitat is also habitat for many other dwindling species, so conservation of habitat helps other species.
• Conservation Banking – This is a classic “win-win” scenario, creating a free market approach which invests in conservation.
• Relationship building and public perspective.
If you do identify a panther, there is no need to contact Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) or US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Just consider yourself one of the fortunate few. However, if you do see a dead panther, most likely along a roadside, please call the FWC at 1-888-404-3922 (FWCC). For more information or to support conservation of one the most endangered mammals in North American, a true symbol of the remaining wild areas of Florida, please go to www.floridapanther.org.
Nancy Richie is a long time Island resident and Marine Biologist.