Florida Panther Deaths in 2012 Break Record

Over the past year, we've kept you clued in on the fate of the Florida panthers, the big cats that have been showing up dead at a surprising rate. Thanks to a number of factors, the frequency of dead members of the endangered species was so troubling Florida was close to breaking the record.

Unfortunately, we got there. In 2012, 26 panthers were found dead, the most since the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission began keeping track of the numbers. The previous high -- 25 -- was hit twice, in 2007 and 2009.

But although the body count is nothing to squawk at, experts say it's not so much a figure of doom and gloom as a sign of the species' relative health.

FWC's Marc Criffleld says no one factor contributed to the deaths. But because the species is producing more panthers, the cats are expanding out into areas where they come into more contact with people.

"When the population grows to what it is today, they are then forced to expand out and live in areas that are a little less ideal," Criffeld says. "There are a lot of roads crisscrossing these areas."

Right now, Criffeld and others guess the panther population in Florida is somewhere are 130 cats. That's a big jump from the 20 or so members of the species hanging around the state in the 70s and 80s. And although more cats died this year than ever before, the species is popping out replacements at a steady clip.

"They're still making babies."