The black panther is the common name for a black specimen (a melanistic variant) of any of several species of cats. Zoologically speaking, the term panther is synonymous with leopard. The genus name Panthera is a taxonomic category that contains all the species of a particular group of felids. In North America, the term panther is commonly used for the Cougar; in Latin America it is most often used to mean a Jaguar. Elsewhere in the world it refers to the Leopard (originally individual animals with longer tails were deemed panthers and others were leopards; it is a common misconception that the term panther necessarily refers to a melanistic individual).
Melanism is most common in the Jaguar (Panthera onca) – where
it is due to a dominant gene mutation – and the Leopard (Panthera
pardus) – where it is due to a recessive gene mutation. Close
examination of one of these black cats will show that the
typical markings are still there, and are simply hidden by the
surplus of the black pigment melanin. Cats with melanism can
co-exist with litter mates that do not have this condition. In
cats that hunt mainly at night the condition is not detrimental.
White panthers also exist, these being albino or leucistic
individuals of the same three species.
It is probable that melanism is a favorable evolutionary mutation with a selective advantage under certain conditions for its possessor, since it is more commonly found in regions of dense forest, where light levels are lower. Melanism can also be linked to beneficial mutations in the immune system.
These are the most common form of black panther in captivity and have been selectively bred for decades as exhibits or exotic pets (this inbreeding for the sake of appearance has adversely affected temperament). They are smaller and more lightly built than leopards. The spotted pattern is still visible on black leopards, especially from certain angles where the effect is that of printed silk. Skin color is a mixture of blue black gray and purple with rosettes. A black panther (leopard) is able to hunt and kill animals outweighing them by more than 1,350 pounds (612 kg) but this is rare because of competition from tigers and lions.
Black leopards are reported from most densely-forested areas in south-western 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 from Ethiopia (formerly Abyssinia), the forests of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares. One was recorded by Peter Turnbull-Kemp in the equatorial forest of Cameroon.
Adult black panthers (leopards) are more temperamental (nervous or vicious) than their spotted counterparts. It is a myth that their mothers often reject them at a young age because of their colour. In actuality, they are more temperamental because they have been inbred to preserve the coloration. The poor temperament has been bred into the strain as a side-effect of inbreeding. It is this poor temperament that leads to problems of maternal care in captivity as the proximity of humans stresses the mother. According to Funk and Wagnalls' Wildlife Encyclopedia, black leopards are less fertile than normal leopards having average litters of 1.8, compared to 2.1. This is likely due to Inbreeding depression.
In the early 1980s, Glasgow Zoo, Scotland acquired a 10 year old black leopard from Dublin Zoo, Ireland. She was exhibited for several years before moving to Madrid Zoo, Spain. This leopard had a uniformly black coat profusely sprinkled with white hairs as though draped with spider webs. She was therefore nicknamed the Cobweb Panther. The condition appeared to be vitiligo and as she aged, the white became more extensive. Since then, other Cobweb Panthers have been reported and photographed in zoos.
Black Cougars have been reported in Kentucky, one of which had a paler belly. There have also been reports of glossy black Cougars from Kansas and eastern Nebraska. These are known as the North American Black Panther (NABP). None have ever been photographed or shot in the wild, and none have been bred. There is wide consensus among breeders and biologists that the animal does not exist and is a cryptid. Sightings are current attributed to mistaken species identification by non feline experts, and memetic exaggeration of size.
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 cougar [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 neighborhood 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," says M. de la Borde, "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. The female brings forth her young in the hollows of old trees." This black cougar is most likely a margay or ocelot, which are under forty pounds, live in trees, and do occur in a melanistic phase.
Another description of a black cougar was provided by Mr Pennant: "Black tiger, or cat, with the head black, sides, fore part of the legs, and the tail, covered with short and very glossy hairs, of a dusky colour, sometimes spotted with black, but generally plain: Upper lips white: At the corner of the mouth a black spot: Long hairs above each eye, and long whiskers on the upper lip: Lower lip, throat, belly, and the inside of the legs, whitish, or very pale ash-colour: Paws white: Ears pointed: Grows to the size of a heifer of a year old: Has vast strength in its limbs.-- Inhabits Brasil and Guiana: Is a cruel and fierce beast; much dreaded by the Indians; but happily is a scarce species;" (Pennant's Synops. of quad., p 180). According to his translator Smellie (1781), the description was taken from two black cougars exhibited in London some years previously.
Adult male bobcats are between 28 to 47" long (with a a short
bobbed tail), and are between 18 to 24" high at shoulder height.
(Females are slightly smaller.) Florida Cougars are between 23
to 32" at shoulder height, and between 5 to 7 ft including tail.
Bobcats weight between 16 to 30 pounds, whereas Florida Cougars
are between 50 to 154 pounds.
Another explanation for black Cougar sightings is the Jaguarundi, a cat very similar genetically to the Cougar, which grows to around 65 cm (30 inches) with 45 cm (20 in) of tail. Their coat goes through a reddish-brown phase and a dark grey phase. While their acknowledged natural range ends in southern Texas, a small breeding population was introduced to Florida in the 1940s, and there are rumors of people breeding them as pets there as well – in Central America they are known as relatively docile pets, as far as non-domesticated animals go. Jaguarundis hunting territory can extend to 100 km wide for males, and it's quite possible that very small populations which rarely venture out of deep forests are responsible for many or most of the sightings. While they are significantly smaller than a Cougar, differently colored, and much lower to the ground (many note a resemblance to the weasel), a little memory bias combined with their secretive nature could explain many of the sightings in the southeastern U.S.
Another possibility are black Jaguars, who are believed to have ranged North America in historical memory. Melanistic Jaguars aren't common in nature, and more importantly, Jaguars themselves were hunted to near extinction in the '60s. However, while they do not look exactly like Cougars, they have the requisite size, and it's conceivable that there could be, for example, a breeding population hidden in the Louisiana bayou. The Jaguar has had several photographically confirmed and many unconfirmed sightings in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and southwest Texas, but not outside that region.
This Panther Page is Copyright The Animal Web Guide © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub