New Technology Helping to Confirm Range Expansion of Florida Panthers
Rookery Bay Reserve is known for the pristine, mangrove-forested estuaries encompassed within its 110,000 acres along the southwest Florida coast that serve as home to coastal birds, fish and manatees. Many people don't realize that this boundary also protects approximately 6,000 acres of upland habitat such as pine flatwoods, tropical hardwood hammock and coastal scrub. These habitats provide food and shelter for a vast diversity of terrestrial species including the Florida panther.
Since 2000, Reserve biologists have observed subtle clues that Reserve lands are occasionally visited by Florida panthers. Tracks and scat piles (droppings) can indicate a cat's presence but how often they visit and for what purpose are questions that remained largely unanswered. Information on habitat use and feeding area preferences has historically only been documented through tracking collars placed on a handful of cats by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's capture team, and this information is limited by the number of collared cats.
As part of their listed species monitoring program, Rookery Bay Research Reserve biologists use wildlife cameras at a known crocodile nesting site to document nesting and predation. Over the past few years, staff has been assisting FWC biologists piece together clues about the panther population and have turned to technology to learn more about uncollared panthers.
Wildlife cameras installed in a number of locations including those previously suspected travel corridors are recording a more consistent presence of uncollared cats in this coastal area. The image resolution is even good enough to identify individual cats. The camera also records time and date of every visit, enabling biologists to not only confirm these coastal areas are important habitat, but to learn more about their overall health and other details not previously available through tracking data alone. The cameras provide a rare opportunity to observe endangered species behavior. The panther in the video above was clearly curious about the camera however, it stayed in view for nearly 30 minutes.