WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – A year after launching an online site for Florida panther sightings, state wildlife officials are finding the data useful, even if the occasional report turns out to be a fox -- or even a monkey.
Yes, a monkey.
Wildlife biologists are using reports from the public to help track the population of endangered Florida panthers, a citizen-science effort similar to those used to track populations of birds, fish and other animals.
A year after launching its online site, biologists with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission have received 790 reports of panther sightings from most parts of the state, complete with GPS coordinates.
The problem: Only 12 percent of the reports included photographs of the animal, or its tracks, that could be used to verify whether the reporter truly saw a Florida panther.
The majority of the reports submitted with photos were verified as Florida panthers, the FWC said. Other animals mistaken for panthers included bobcats, foxes, coyotes, dogs, house cats and a monkey.
Darrell Land, leader of the FWC's panther team in Naples, said the public reporting effort helps biologists track the expanding range of the panther, whose population is estimated at 100 to 160. Although the panther is still a rare sight, the population has grown substantially from the 30 to 40 cats thought to exist during the late 1980s.
Counting panthers is difficult because they are solitary, elusive and wide-ranging animals.
"To properly plan and manage for the expansion of the panther's range in Florida, information about where the panthers are is vital," Land said.
Most of the verified reports to the FWC's website were from southwest Florida, the well-established breeding range for Florida panthers. But a few of the verified sightings were north of Lake Okeechobee, an indication that panthers could be roaming farther to find food and establish territory.
None of the sighting reports from Palm Beach County was verified as a panther sighting, Land said.
The animal most commonly mistaken for a panther, or its tracks, was the bobcat.
The website www.FloridaPanthernet.org includes photos and tips for identifying the tracks of panthers, which leave no claw imprints when walking and have three distinct lobes at the rear edge of the heel pad. A bobcat track looks similar, but it's about a third the size of a panther track.
Land encouraged the public to submit photos of panther tracks using the website, which includes a Google map tool that allows users to zoom in on a location and pinpoint the coordinates.
"If it's a good-quality track, we can get a positive ID on it," Land said.
Land hopes more photos of panthers captured on game cameras -- stand-alone cameras left in the woods that are triggered when animals pass by -- will be shared with the FWC.
If an observer is lucky enough to see a panther with a camera ready, photos of the elusive cats are useful, even if they're taken with a phone.
But Land advises against moving closer to a panther to get a better photo. Although there are no documented cases of anyone being mauled by a panther, they're large, wild cats, with adult males weighing 100 to 160 pounds.
"Make sure they know you're there so there's no element of surprise," Land said.
The concept of using the observations of many to benefit animal research dates back to 1900, when ornithologist Frank Chapman organized the first Christmas Bird Count, then an alternative to Christmas Day bird hunts.
An online reporting site for fox squirrels launched in 2011 resulted in 4,221 location reports over eight months. The sighting locations helped determine what natural and urban habitats the fox squirrels were using, said Courtney Tye, an FWC wildlife biologist in Gainesville who is tracking four species of fox squirrels.
"Information provided by the public is invaluable in locating imperiled wildlife," Tye said.