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The next car that runs over a Florida panther will set a grisly record

They found the tawny carcass on State Road 29 in Glades County on the day before Thanksgiving. It was a male Florida panther, not quite 3 years old, run down by a vehicle that never stopped.

This was not just any dead panther, though. This was the 35th dead panther in 2015, setting a record for the total number of the endangered cats killed in a year.

And it was also the 25th one killed by a car or truck, tying the road-kill record set last year.

With a month yet to go in 2015, "it's just a matter of time before we break that record," panther biologist Dave Onorato of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said Monday.

Biologists estimate that the panther population is somewhere between 100 and 180 adults, which means at least 13 percent and as much as 25 percent of the population was killed this year. Either way, it's a large segment of a species that has been classified as endangered since the first endangered species list was created in 1967.

Florida's schoolchildren picked the panther as the state animal in 1981, choosing it over the alligator, the manatee, the Key deer and a few others that got write-in votes, such as the dolphin and the baboon.

Panthers have proved so popular they've become the mascot for dozens of schools, the namesake of the National Hockey League team in South Florida and the decoration on tens of thousands of specialty license plates, sold to pay for the wildlife commission's panther research.

Meanwhile, the real panthers have struggled to hang on to their slice of wilderness adjacent to where the state's most rapid development has occurred. The wide-ranging predators have lost habitat not just to suburban sprawl, but also to the creation of Florida Gulf Coast University and the town of Ave Maria.

In the mid 1990s, there were no more than 30 panthers left. Those remaining suffered from genetic defects due to inbreeding, which prevented any captive-breeding program from succeeding.

In a bold experiment, state biologists imported eight female Texas cougars — a close cousin of Florida's panthers — and turned them loose. Five mated with panthers and produced offspring free of genetic defects, which, in turn, pushed the population above 100 cats for the first time in decades.

However, because humans moved into their territory, panthers began turning up in back yards more frequently, and attacking cats, goats and other domestic animals found around the edges of suburbia, not to mention cattle on Southwest Florida ranches.

The growing conflict between people and panthers may be to blame for a rash of panther shootings in recent years. The most recent one claimed the life of a 5-year-old male panther found March 22 near Ave Maria. Federal officials have offered a $5,000 reward, but, so far, no arrests have been made.

The cause of death for the rest of the panthers killed in 2015: attacks by other panthers, usually in a battle over territory.

The panther run over before Thanksgiving was well known to biologists, who christen the big cats with a combination of letters and numbers — with "K" for kittens and "FP" for grown Florida panthers — instead of names.

Onorato could trace this one back to its grandmother's den down in the Big Cypress Preserve, where its mother was born in 2009, becoming K287. When the mother got old enough, its name became FP192 and, in a den in Big Cypress in February 2013, she bore kittens.

Biologists first checked on the record-tying panther when it was a tiny fuzzball, designating it K387. Nature photographer Ralph Arwood snapped a picture of the kitten, its blue eyes barely open. More recently, the growing male left its den and ranged northward some 65 miles to cross the Caloosahatchee River and stake out a new territory near Fisheating Creek, Onorato said.

That's where it met its end, clobbered by a fender or a bumper on a vehicle zooming down the road.

The one hopeful sign is in the numbers. As Big Cypress biologist Deborah Jansen put it, it's "interesting to me that his K number is 100 more kittens handled since his mom was."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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