A melanistic jaguar at the Henry Doorly Zoo. Melanism is the result of a dominant allele and remains relatively rare in jaguars. A black panther is typically a melanistic color variant of any of several species of larger cat. In Latin America, wild 'black panthers' may be black jaguars (Panthera onca); in Asia and Africa, black leopards (Panthera pardus); in Asia, possibly the very rare black tigers (Panthera tigris); and in North America they may be black jaguars or possibly black cougars (Puma concolor although this has not been proven to have a black variant), or smaller cats.
Black Panthers are also reported as cryptids in areas such as the United States and the United Kingdom, and if these do exist, their species is not known (see also British big cats). Captive black panthers may be black jaguars, or more commonly black leopards.
Melanism in the jaguar (Panthera onca) is conferred by a dominant allele, and in the leopard (Panthera pardus) by a recessive allele. Close examination of the color of these black cats will show that the typical markings are still present, but are hidden by the excess black pigment melanin, giving an effect similar to that of printed silk. This is called "ghost striping". Melanistic and non-melanistic animals can be littermates. It is thought that melanism may confer a selective advantage under certain conditions since it is more common in regions of dense forest, where light levels are lower. Recent, preliminary studies also suggest that melanism might be linked to beneficial mutations in the immune system.
A melanistic leopard Black leopards are reported in most densely forested areas in southwestern China, Myanmar, Assam and Nepal, from Travancore and other parts of southern India, and are said to be common in Java and the southern part of the Malay Peninsula where they may be more numerous than spotted leopards. They are less common in tropical Africa, but have been reported in Ethiopia (formerly Abyssinia), in the forests of Mount Kenya and in the Aberdares. One was recorded by Peter Turnbull-Kemp in the equatorial forest of Cameroon. Fur color is a mixture of blue, black, gray, and purple.
Melanistic leopards are the most common form of black panther in captivity and they have been selectively bred for decades in the zoo and exotic pet trades. Black leopards are smaller and more lightly built than normally-pigmented individuals.
It is a myth that black leopards are often rejected by their mothers at an early age because of their color. In actuality, poor temperament has been bred into the captive strains as a side-effect of inbreeding and it is this poor temperament that leads to problems of maternal care in captivity. According to Funk and Wagnalls' Wildlife Encyclopedia, captive black leopards are less fertile than normal leopards, with average litter sizes of 1.8 and 2.1, respectively. This is likely due to inbreeding depression.
In the early 1980s, Glasgow Zoo acquired a 10 year old black leopard, nicknamed the Cobweb Panther, from Dublin Zoo. She was exhibited for several years before being moved to the Madrid Zoo. This leopard had a uniformly black coat profusely sprinkled with white hairs as though draped with spider webs. The condition appeared to be vitiligo; as she aged, the white became more extensive. Since then, other "cobweb panthers" have been reported and photographed in zoos.
A melanistic jaguar
In jaguars, the melanism allele is dominant. Consequently, black jaguars may produce either black or spotted cubs, but a pair of spotted jaguars can only produce spotted cubs. The gene is incompletely dominant: individuals with two copies of the allele are darker (the black background color is more dense) than individuals with just one copy, whose background color may appear to be dark charcoal rather than black.
The black jaguar was considered a separate species by indigenous peoples. W H Hudson wrote:
The jaguar is a beautiful creature, the ground-color of the fur a rich golden-red tan, abundantly marked with black rings, enclosing one or two small spots within. This is the typical coloring, and it varies little in the temperate regions; in the hot region the Indians recognise three strongly marked varieties, which they regard as distinct species the one described; the smaller jaguar, less aquatic in his habits and marked with spots, not rings; and, thirdly, the black variety. They scout the notion that their terrible "black tiger" is a mere melanic variation, like the black leopard of the Old World and the wild black rabbit. They regard it as wholly distinct, and affirm that it is larger and much more dangerous than the spotted jaguar; that they recognise it by its cry; that it belongs to the terra firma rather than to the water-side; finally, that black pairs with black, and that the cubs are invariably black. Nevertheless, naturalists have been obliged to make it specifically one with Felis onca [Panthera onca], the familiar spotted jaguar, since, when stripped of its hide, it is found to be anatomically as much like that beast as the black is like the spotted leopard.
A black jaguar named "Diablo" was inadvertently crossed with a lioness named "Lola" at the Bear Creek Wildlife Sanctuary in Barrie, Canada. The offspring were a charcoal black jaglion female and a tan-colored, spotted jaglion male. It therefore appears that the jaguar melanism gene is also dominant over normal lion coloration (the black jaguar sire was presumably carrying the black on only one allele). In preserved, stuffed specimens, black leopards often fade to a rusty color but black jaguars fade to a chocolate brown color.
Illustration of a black cougar, 1843 There are no authenticated cases of truly melanistic cougars (pumas). Melanistic cougars have never been photographed or shot in the wild and none has ever been bred. There is wide consensus among breeders and biologists that the animal does not exist.
Black cougars have been reported in Kentucky and in the Carolinas. There have also been reports of glossy black cougars from Kansas, Texas and eastern Nebraska. These have come to be known as the "North American black panther". Sightings are currently attributed to errors in species identification by non-experts, and by the memetic exaggeration of size.
Black panthers in the American Southeast feature prominently in Choctaw folklore where, along with the owl, they are often thought to symbolize Death.
In his Histoire Naturelle (1749), Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, wrote of the "Black Cougar":
"M. de la Borde, King s physician at Cayenne, informs me, that in the [South American] Continent there are three species of rapacious animals; that the first is the jaguar, which is called the tiger; that the second is the couguar [sic], called the red tiger, on account of the uniform redness of his hair; that the jaguar is of the size of a large bull-dog, and weighs about 200 pounds [90 kg]; that the cougar is smaller, less dangerous, and not so frequent in the neighbourhood of Cayenne as the jaguar; and that both these animals take six years in acquiring their full growth. He adds, that there is a third species in these countries, called the black tiger, of which we have given a figure under the appellation of the black cougar. The head is pretty similar to that of the common cougar; but the animal has long black hair, and likewise a long tail, with strong whiskers. He weighs not much above forty pounds [18 kg]. The female brings forth her young in the hollows of old trees."
This "black cougar" was most likely a margay or ocelot, which are under in weight, live in trees, and do have melanistic phases.
Another description of a black cougar was provided by Pennant: According to his translator Smellie (1781), the description was taken from two black cougars exhibited in London some years previously.
Reports of black panthers in the United States
"Black panther" sightings have come from Georgia and Horry County, South Carolina as recently as 2006. Sightings have also been recorded in parts of Texas and Southern Oklahoma, and scattered throughout the eastern U.S. In 2010 a black panther sighting was reported in Madison, Mississippi, but most people believe it was simply a labrador retriever. There have been numerous reported black panther sightings in the New Orleans area since late 2010. Recent photographs are still under examination by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries.
In Florida, a few melanistic bobcats have been captured; these have apparently been mistaken for Florida panthers (a subspecies of cougar). Ulmer (1941) presents photographs and descriptions of two animals captured in Martin County in 1939 and 1940. In the photographs, they appear black, and one of the hunters called them black.
The Academy specimen, upon close examination, is far from black. The most heavily pigmented portions are the crown and dorsal area. In most lights these areas appear black, but at certain angles the dorsal strip has a decidedly mahogany tint. The mahogany coloring becomes lighter and richer on the sides. The underparts are lightest, being almost ferruginous in color. The chin, throat and cheeks are dark chocolate-brown, but the facial stripes can be seen clearly. The limbs are dark mahogany. In certain lights the typical spot-pattern of the Florida bobcat can be distinctly seen on the side, underparts and limbs. The Bronx Park animal appears darker and the spots are not visible, although the poor light in the quarantine cage may have been the reason.
Another possible explanation for black panther sightings is the jaguarundi, a small cat very similar genetically to the cougar, whose coat has a dark grey phase. While their acknowledged natural range ends in southern Texas, a small breeding population was introduced to Florida in the 1940s. It has been suggested that very small populations of jaguarundi, which rarely venture out of deep forests, are responsible for many or most of the supposed black cougar sightings. While they are significantly smaller than cougars, differently colored, and much lower to the ground, memory bias could explain many of the sightings in the southeastern U.S.
Another possibility would be the black jaguar, which ranged into North America in historical memory and is a similar size to the cougar. The spotted jaguar has had several (photographically) confirmed, and many unconfirmed, sightings in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and southwest Texas, but not beyond that region.
Calls to Florida wildlife agencies also include house cats (video or photographs make size determination difficult), and river otters (especially at a distance), which are dark brown and can grow to approximately 5 feet in length and move with a gait that people associate with cats.
Reports of black panthers in Australia
Black panther sightings are frequently recorded in rural Victoria and New South Wales and Western Australia. The Australian "phantom panthers" are said to be responsible for the disappearances and deaths of numerous cats, dogs and livestock.
Animal X Natural Mysteries Unit led an investigation into the phantom panther. Mike Williams, a local researcher, said he had sent scat and hair found by locals to labs for analysis, which identified it as scat from dogs that had feasted on swamp wallaby, and hair from a domestic cat. Mr Williams said he also had leopard scat and hair collected from a private zoo tested by one of the same labs, but that these samples came back with the same results of dog scat and domestic cat hair. The lab used was not identified in the episode.
Pseudo-melanism (abundism) occurs in leopards. A pseudo-melanistic leopard has a normal background color, but the spots are more densely packed than normal and merge to obscure the golden-brown background color. Any spots on the flanks and limbs that have not merged into the mass of swirls and stripes are unusually small and discrete, rather than forming rosettes. The face and underparts are paler and dappled like those of ordinary spotted leopards.
Richard Lydekker described specimens of pseudo-melanistic leopards found in South Africa in the late nineteenth century:
Male Persian leopard with an atypical coat pattern (Wilhelma, Germany)
Most other color morphs of leopards are known only from paintings or museum specimens. In May 1936, the British Natural History Museum exhibited the mounted skin of an unusual Somali leopard. The pelt was richly decorated with an intricate pattern of swirling stripes, blotches, curls and fine-line traceries. This is different from a spotted leopard, but similar to a king cheetah, hence the modern cryptozoology term king leopard. Between 1885 and 1934, six pseudo-melanistic leopards were recorded in the Albany and Grahamstown districts of South Africa. This indicated a mutation in the local leopard population. Other king leopards have been recorded from Malabar in southwestern India. Shooting for trophies may have contributed to the loss of these populations.
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