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Florida to try a RADical new idea to protect endangered panthers

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Florida pantherLast year 17 Florida panthers (Felis concolor coryi) were killed when they were struck by vehicles, an all-time high and a terrible blow to one of North America’s most endangered mammals. Only 100 or so panthers remain in Florida, and the species shows signs of heavy inbreeding due to its limited population.

Panthers are already protected by law, and drivers face heavy fines for speeding in known panther zones, but that hasn’t done much to stop these unnecessary deaths.

But now panthers have a new ally, and it’s pretty radical. It’s a technology called Roadside Animal Detection Systems (RADS), which Florida will install on a dangerous stretch of highway that runs through Big Cypress National Preserve this summer.

RADS provide drivers with extra warnings that a panther or other big creature might be on the road ahead of them. "The RAD sets off flashing amber lights, which warn drivers that an animal is approaching the road," says Elizabeth Fleming, Florida representative for Defenders of Wildlife. "Hopefully the drivers will heed the warnings and slow down."

The project originated with the Florida office of Defenders of Wildlife, which applied for governmental Transportation Enhancement funds on behalf of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in association with the National Park Service.

"The funds were originally allocated so the Florida Department of Transportation could put in a wildlife crossing with fencing," explains Laurie Macdonald, Florida program director for Defenders. But the fencing project received resistance from hunters and local Indian tribes, so Defenders turned their eyes to the RADS solution. "RADS have been used out west for different animals," says Macdonald. "We’re very hopeful that this will work under Florida climate conditions and for the Florida panther."

There are several different types of RADS which use lasers, ground sensors or other systems to sense an animal that is moving toward a roadway. "The final system might be a variety of different technologies," Fleming says. "The site has many challenges. It’s extremely wet, and there’s a lot of vegetation where the animals are crossing. Temperature and high winds can also be a factor." Vendors working on the project will need to be innovative and apply new techniques, Fleming says. "We have hopes that this is going to generate a little ingenuity."

The 1.3-mile stretch of road has a bloody history. A least eight panthers have been struck by cars there in recent years.

The federal government has kicked in $650,000 for this project, and the Florida Department of Transportation has committed to finding funds to monitor the system once it has been installed. Bids to install the RADS are going out shortly, Fleming reports, with the aim being to have the system up and running by this summer.

Photo: Florida panther by Monica R., via Flickr. Creative Commons

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  1. 1. outsidethebox 6:07 pm 04/19/2010

    Its pretty hard to take this "Florida" panther nonsense seriously. Most of the current members are only here today because they imported almost half from Texas a few years ago. But were going to pretend they’re some important unique species. More junk science.

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  2. 2. lowndesw 7:01 pm 04/19/2010

    Mr. Outsidethebox, I bet those 17 panthers took it seriously, and personal, too. Better get back to your chemistry set now.

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  3. 3. craigtimes 8:25 pm 04/19/2010

    Only 8 female Texas cougars were imported, and only 5 were able to breed with the Florida panthers. That was in 1995, when there were only 30 or so panthers. Now there are 100…but because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to protect panther habitat, they’re squeezed into a smaller area than ever before. To learn more click here:

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  4. 4. jjohnson065 8:29 pm 04/19/2010

    There are speed limits in the panther areas? So if you speed you hit and kill the panther quickly, but if you go the speed limit you will probably still hit it but it’ll take longer to die. Sounds pretty humane to me.

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  5. 5. sqengineer 10:05 pm 04/19/2010

    I driven that stretch of Alligator Alley many times, and many times very late at night. This 4-lane divided highway stretches across the everglades, from Ft. lauderdale on Florida’s east coast to Naples, on the west coast and has sparse highway lighting along the way…usually only at the very few rest areas along it’s 80-mile route. On moonless or cloudy nights, it is almost impossible to see anything until you are almost upon it. Add to that, the younger, "I-think-a-car-is-a-play-toy" crowd using the alley as an 80-mile, sparsely-patrolled raceway, where many reach speeds of well over 100 mph, are a death knell for anything in or stuck on the highway…including people who think it would be more human to hit a panther at high rate of speed. Hopefully, these new devices will help warn drivers of animals in the vicinity and we can stop the wholesale slaughter of these beautiful animals.

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  6. 6. Jokunen 10:26 pm 04/19/2010

    I know what would work to get people to slow down in such places. First put signs that tell what is the speed limit along with information that it’s enforced with technology. Then install active speed detectors and speed bums that raise from the road when those detectors sense too high a speed. Maybe after some jumps people either find themselves in the ditches or learn that speeding is not allowed and slow down.

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  7. 7. sunstar 5:12 am 04/20/2010

    Speed bumps/Speed breakers at regular intervals?

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  8. 8. Elegia 5:13 am 04/20/2010

    Or speed cameras… live feed. Or webcams, including infrared, AND speed bumps.

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  9. 9. Open Mind 4 a Different View 12:38 pm 04/30/2010

    Florida should try this RADical idea: Stop authorizing development of panther habitat and stop increasing capacity of the roadway network in and adjacent to panther habitat.

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  10. 10. neuperg 11:03 am 05/12/2012

    The system was installed in late 2011 and is operational. It is located on a 1.4 mile stretch of US41 in an area known for panther crossings. This is a few miles east of Everglades City. There are static signs at each end warning of the crossing. If a panther or other similar height creature triggers the system on either side of the road, flashers at each end flash for a few minutes. The idea is primarily to make drivers aware that a critter may be on or in close proximity of the road and to pay careful attention. Secondarily, to slow down so that you have more reaction time if the critter gets in the path of your car. The area where the system was installed was instrumented with wildlife cameras prior to system deployment and documented panther as well as black bear, deer and other animal crossings.

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  11. 11. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 3:27 pm 05/12/2012

    Thanks for the update!

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