Two more endangered Florida panthers have been killed, but this time nature, rather than direct human interference, is to blame. Biologists say the recent killings of two young females by the same young male were the result of a territorial fight that started with the July death of an older male who ruled an area of the preserve.
"When a dominant, productive male dies, within the social structure essentially all bets are off," said Tom Logan, chief panther researcher for the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. "The one that's able to dominate is the one that assumes that territory, or a part of it."
Instead of seeing the deaths as a gloomy reminder that only 30 to 50 of the big cats remain, mostly in the Big Cypress, biologists see them as an affirmation of nature's "survival of the fittest" doctrine.
Because most panthers in the Southwest Florida swamp have been captured and fitted with numbered radio collars during years of study, researchers know the animals and their home areas.
Panther No. 17 died in July of unknown causes, and his death opened the door to change.
First, No. 26, a male, expanded his home range to include a large part of the land left open by No. 17.
The rest of the open range apparently has been taken over by No. 28, a young "floater" male who had been looking for a home to call his own.
"No. 28 has been in the news before,"said Logan. "In November 1988, this cat was hit by a police car at the Fort Myers airport."
It was nursed back to health and released into the wild last year.
In early October, No. 28 "probably killed female panthers 41 and 18," biologist Tom Maehr said.
He said that being an inexperienced male, No. 28 may have considered the female panthers, neither of whom had been giving birth, as territorial threats.
Biologists hope his next encounters are with some of the females who may want to move into the vacated territories.