I’ve heard hunters, bird watchers, and environmental researchers talk about an animal they all claim to have seen: a black panther. A few of the reports were around Halloween. We don’t speak in zoos, books, or movies, but in the wild in various places in the United States.
Are the stories true? Are there giant black cats in North America? From an ecological and genetic point of view, black cats have an element of mystery that has nothing to do with superstitions or Halloween.
The black panthers of the jungle certainly exist. The black phases of leopards (another name for panthers) occur in Asia and rarely in Africa.
I saw a captive, a beautiful creature, at the Mirage in Las Vegas. The black jaguars of tropical America are found in the wild.
The genetic phenomenon known as melanism, which causes an individual to be almost entirely black, occurs in many species of mammals that might otherwise be white, gray, beige, or brown. Melanism has been documented in coyotes, gray squirrels, and even white-tailed deer, producing nearly pure black individuals.
In rare cases, bobcats, which occur in Mexico, southern Canada, and most states in the United States, can be completely black. The majority of scientifically verified records come from Florida, but at least one has been found in eastern Canada, suggesting that the genetic makeup that makes a bobcat black could occur anywhere.
However, when people report seeing a “black panther” in the wild in North America, they usually refer to the mountain lion (a / k / a cougar, puma, catamount). No photograph, no carcass, no scientific evidence of any kind has ever been provided to indicate that a puma can be a solid black. But reports of people seeing black mountain lions abound.
One of those reports in Pennsylvania turned out to be another long-tailed mammal known as the fisherman. This does not mean that a melanistic mountain lion does not exist somewhere or did not exist in the past. It only means that the existence of one has not been verified.
I can give several plausible explanations why someone in the Southeast might claim to have seen a black panther. The first is that the person saw a bobcat. Confusing a bobcat for a mountain lion might sound wacky as bobcats are smaller and have shorter tails, but I know it can happen.
I was called in to examine three different road-killed cats that were believed to be dead mountain lions. All of them turned out to be large bobcats.
Another explanation is that a person may confuse a large dog or dark-colored long-tailed coyote with a large cat, especially at night or in semi-darkness. Much to the embarrassment of two different individuals who made such sightings, the animals left footprints that were turned into plaster casts for identification – dog paws each time.
Another possibility exists. Private ownership of big cats, including tigers, leopards, and jaguars, is illegal in most states, but not all. Black varieties of leopards and jaguars are proportionately more common in captive animals than in the wild due to selective breeding.
It is certainly not uncommon for a large cat to escape from a zoo or personal detention center. Such an observation could be easily validated if the owner of the animal said, “Hey, this is my missing black leopard.” It is simply possible that an owner is hesitant to admit that they are the owner of a huge, stealthy predator that has rampaged through the neighborhood.
Is it possible that at least some people who say they’ve seen a big black long-tailed cat in the wild have actually seen a black puma? Perhaps the carcass of one of them has never been found or a credible photograph taken because they are so rare. Halloween is probably not the best time to go hunting for a big black cat in the wild. But if you see one, who knows? Maybe it’s a black mountain lion.
Whit Gibbons is Professor of Zoology and Senior Biologist in the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at the University of Georgia. If you have an environmental question or comment, send an email to [email protected].