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How rare was the car collision that killed a Florida panther in Hillsborough County?

New details have emerged about the crash that left a 2-year-old male panther dead on the side of Keysville Road.
Uncollared Florida panther 435 was stuck by a white car and killed Thursday in Hillsborough County, according to Florida wildlife officials. It's the first panther death in Hillsborough since 2003.
Uncollared Florida panther 435 was stuck by a white car and killed Thursday in Hillsborough County, according to Florida wildlife officials. It's the first panther death in Hillsborough since 2003. [ Courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission ]
Published Dec. 7, 2022|Updated Dec. 9, 2022

When Dave Onorato got the call late Thursday night that another Florida panther had been struck and killed by a vehicle, it was the location that caught his attention.

“Hillsborough County — it’s been awhile since we’ve seen that,” said Onorato, a panther research scientist with the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. “It’s uncommon to get panthers that far north.”

In fact, 2003 was the last time a Florida panther was killed by a vehicle in Hillsborough County. Nearly 98% of panthers reside south of the Caloosahatchee River, some 100 miles south of the backcountry road where the panther identified as UCFP435 — or the 435th uncollared Florida panther that the state has handled since 1981 — was killed last week.

But two decades later, there are similarities between the panther that was killed then and the panther that was killed last week.

For one, both were male. Male panthers tend to venture farther than females, which typically remain south of Lake Okeechobee. That’s where all known breeding occurs, according to Onorato.

Biologists also estimated both animals to be around 2 years old, and both were in good shape. That’s an important detail: Younger, healthier, subadult male panthers can venture farther from their traditional path as they look to establish a territory.

“They’re in the period when Mom kicks them out and they need to find a home range,” Onorato said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “They’re not considered adults yet. (Panther 435) fits the profile: He was looking for a home range, and looking for females. But breeding opportunities aren’t that common yet.”

As panther populations increase, so too does their range. The animals can already cover huge distances: One was found as far north as Georgia, and in 2017, Florida wildlife biologists confirmed they found Florida panther kittens north of the Caloosahatchee River for the first time in decades.

The white minivan that struck and killed a Florida panther on Dec. 1 experienced bumper damage and was "disabled" after the crash, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The white minivan that struck and killed a Florida panther on Dec. 1 experienced bumper damage and was "disabled" after the crash, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. [ Courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Comission ]

So when Onorato heard about Panther 435′s death off of rural Keysville Road, his interest was piqued. But he wasn’t entirely surprised, either.

“They do get up that way every once in a while. But between the interstate, all the roads and the higher density of development, it gets tough for them,” Onorato said. “It becomes a gantlet for them once they get into the I-4 corridor.” The corridor rests between densely populated Tampa and Orlando, and it’s a tough obstacle for wild panthers to cross.

Related: Florida’s animal crossing aims to break barrier of I-4

In April, a male panther was struck by a vehicle and killed in neighboring Polk County, to the east of where Panther 435 was killed. The 2½-year-old was found a few hundred feet from U.S. Route 92. Another male panther was hit by a train in Polk County in January 2020, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data.

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But Hillsborough to the west also has its share of wild spaces where panthers can roam. “Everybody thinks of Hillsborough as Tampa and Ybor City, but the eastern part of the county has less urbanized areas,” Onorato said. “Typically when we have a panther go that far north, they usually head into the southeastern corner of the county.”

Onorato got the call around 8 p.m. Thursday night, just after a white minivan struck the panther and its driver alerted authorities. The animal survived on the side of the road for about 15 minutes before succumbing to internal injuries from the collision, according to Onorato. The vehicle was “disabled” after the crash and had bumper damage. A law enforcement officer collected the panther, and it was brought to the state’s necropsy lab in Gainesville.

Panther 435 was the 26th panther death this year, according to state wildlife data. Twenty-four of those deaths statewide — or 92% — are attributed to vehicle collisions.

“They’re always showing up in strange places,” Onorato said. “The ones up north just roam and roam and roam. Typically the fate of those guys up there is to be found on the road.”