Tracks and Other Signs
Panthers are seldom seen but they do leave evidence behind as they travel in the form of tracks, scrapes and other markers. In this section you can learn to spot these subtle clues that a panther was in the area.
Tracks are the most common sign left by panthers. Panther tracks have some unique characteristics that help clearly distinguish them from other Florida animals such as bears, bobcats, coyotes and dogs.
A panther’s foot pad is shaped like a trapezoid. The top portion of the pad is indented, giving it an “M” shaped impression. However, depending on the ground where the track was made, this may not always be obvious and it may appear flattened. The bottom portion of the pad shows three distinct lobes. This is perhaps the most diagnostic feature of a panther track.
A track left by a front foot of the panther appears round when compared to a rear track, because the front pad is wider. The rear pad is narrower, giving the rear foot track an oval shape.
Figure 1. Comparison of front and rear tracks
The two images shown to the left show a comparison of a panther's front foot (left image) and back foot (right image). A panther's front feet are rounded with a wide pad whereas their back feet are oval-shaped with a narrow pad.
There are four toes that show on the front and hind tracks. They are teardrop-shaped and offset around the pad (the toes are not parallel with each other). A leading toe corresponds with our middle finger and helps differentiate the left and right foot. The claws are retractable and in most cases do not show. However, if the panther is running or walking through deep mud, claw marks may be visible (Figure 2).
Male panthers are larger than females and subsequently have larger feet. The front pad width of a male is more than two inches, while a female’s is less than two inches. At a slow walk, the hind feet are often placed in the tracks of the forefeet. As the pace quickens, the individual tracks will be farther apart (Figure 3).
Panther tracks are most often confused with dog tracks. Unlike panther tracks, the pad of a dog track is triangular shaped, the toes are even or parallel with each other and blunt claw marks are usually present (Figure 4).
When taking a picture of a track for identification purposes, shoot from directly above and include a ruler or some other object to show scale (Figure 5).
The appearance of panther scat is variable, depending on how soon after feeding the scat was deposited. The panther’s initial meal usually consists of the organ meat of its prey and the resulting scat is very dark and runny. However, a more typical, frequently observed scat consists of hair and bone fragments.
The scats are tubular shaped, about one and a half inches in diameter, and can be up to ten inches long. The scats also are segmented and twisted, often breaking at these junctions, and the ends are frequently tapered and pointed. Unlike house cats, panthers do not cover their scats except near kill sites. Bobcat scats have the same characteristics as panther scats but are generally smaller in length and diameter and contain smaller bone fragments.
One way panthers communicate with each other is by making scrapes. Scrapes are piles of soil, leaves or pine needles marked on top with urine or occasionally scat. Panthers make a scrape by pushing their hind feet backwards, heaping up a pile of debris and leaving two parallel strips on the ground approximately four to eight inches long. Occasionally you can see individual grooves left by the toes and, on certain surfaces, a track at the base of the debris pile might be visible.
Scrapes tend to last a relatively long time and can serve as messages to other panthers via both sight and smell. Males scrape to mark their territories and advertise their presence as a way to avoid conflicts with each other. This system of mutual avoidance allows males to overlap their territories while avoiding each other. Females scrape when in estrous to advertise their receptivity to breeding.
Bobcats also make scrapes but they can be differentiated from panther scrapes by the smaller width of their feet. To visualize the difference, imagine the individual foot of a panther scrape being made using all four fingers of your hand whereas the scrape of a bobcat appears as if only two fingers were used. The size of the pile of debris is not a good indicator as to which species made the scrape.
An animal preyed upon by a panther can be identified by the unique manner in which a panther kills and consumes its prey. Panthers generally suffocate their prey by biting the throat at the base of the lower jaw and collapsing the trachea (windpipe). Another method used by panthers is to bite the back of the neck at the base of the skull, dislocating the vertebra. This instantly paralyzes and quickly kills their prey. Panthers are very efficient at subduing prey and the carcasses of their prey show very little external damage until a panther begins to eat it.
Conversely, animals that have multiple bites on other parts of their body, such as their legs or belly, and gaping wounds not associated with feeding by the predator, are indicative of dog or coyote attacks. As a panther feeds, it typically enters the body cavity through the chest and eats the vital organs first, particularly the heart and liver. The ribs are often chewed off, sometimes to near the backbone. The entrails (stomach and intestines) are not eaten, but are removed and buried nearby.
When the panther has eaten its fill, it will cover its prey item by raking leaf litter and other ground debris on top of it. This is known as a cache. This preserves the carcass surprisingly well even in warm temperatures. The panther will return several times to continue feeding on the carcass. Each time it will uncover the remains, usually move it a short distance and feed, and then cover it again. A prey item left uncovered indicates the panther is done feeding and will not return.
When a panther makes a kill, it drags its meal to a secluded location, usually into some thick, brushy vegetation where it can eat undisturbed. Panthers typically grab their prey by the neck region and then straddle the body while walking forward. A drag mark on open ground will be noticeable as a disturbed area a couple of feet wide, depending on the size of the animal being dragged, with panther tracks on either side of the drag mark.
Drag marks may be obvious if the carcass was moved across bare sand or subtle if it was moved across grass. Vegetation will be bent down or broken and will point in the direction of travel. Another clue can be hair from the carcass getting caught on any protruding obstructions such as rocks, logs or branches.
Panthers scratch on trees to maintain their claws just as house cats do. A downed tree or log seems to be preferred but they will also scratch on standing trees, particularly around kill sites. In south Florida the preferred scratching post seems to be a fallen down cabbage palm with a smooth trunk.
While scratching on downed logs, the panther will stand on or straddle the trunk of the tree and rake its front claws on either side of the trunk. On standing trees, the scratch marks will typically be between four to six feet high. Because a panther’s claws are sharp and pointed, the marks left by the individual claws are very thin. Bears also scratch on trees for communication or while climbing or foraging for food but their comparatively blunt claws leave broad marks three to four times wider than a panther’s claws.