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Report indicates vehicle killed panther on roadway

The rare Florida panther killed on Interstate 4 in Seffner early Monday died hungry.

A report released by state wildlife officials Tuesday also found it was indeed killed by a passing car or truck as it tried to cross I-4's westbound lanes about a quarter-mile from where it intersects with Interstate 75. Investigators found bloodstains and skid marks on the road.

The panther's stomach was empty, according to veterinarian Mark Cunningham, who performed the necropsy for the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He said its digestive tract contained hairs that showed it had most recently been dining on small mammals, most likely rabbits.

Panthers prefer larger mammals as their prey, particularly deer, Cunningham said. Still, he said, this panther "was in really good shape."

The necropsy, conducted at Walt Disney's Animal Kingdom, determined that the panther's fatal injuries came from being hit by a car or truck sometime early Monday.

Although the necropsy report says the panther had been dead four or five hours when it was found at 5 a.m., Cunningham said the body was quite fresh and probably had been killed a short time earlier.

The 112-pound cat is the first confirmed panther sighting in Hillsborough County in at least 30 years. Its death marks the furthest north along the Gulf Coast that one has been killed by a vehicle.

Roadkill is the leading cause of death among panthers, which have been on the endangered species list since the list was created.

Still unresolved is where the panther came from. State officials believe it traveled from South Florida, where about 80 panthers now live in and around Big Cypress National Preserve, the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Everglades National Park.

The experts also still do not know whether the Seffner panther was a purebred Florida panther or a descendant of the Texas cougars that state officials imported in the 1990s to breed with the panthers and improve their genetic stock.

The dead panther showed signs of being a purebred specimen, including a distinctive cowlick on its back.