|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 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.
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 color. 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.
In Harmsworth Natural History (1910), WH Hudson writes:
The gene is incompletely dominant. Individuals with two copies of the gene 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.
A black jaguar called Diablo has been accidentally crossed with a lioness named Lola at Bear Creek Wildlife Sanctuary, Barrie, Canada resulting in a charcoal colored black jaglion female as well as a tan colored spotted jaglion male. It therefore cannot be said that the melanistic gene is dominant over lion coloration.
Black panthers in the historic Southeast are featured prominently in Choctaw folklore where, along with the owl, they are often portrayed as 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 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 color, 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-color: Paws white: Ears pointed: Grows to the size of a heifer of a year old: Has vast strength in its limbs.-- Inhabits Brazil 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.
Reported black cougars in the United States
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 under parts 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, under parts 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.
Adult male bobcats are between 28 to 47" long (with 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.
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