Last 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