A black panther is the melanistic color variant of any big cat species. Black panthers in Asia and Africa are leopards (Panthera pardus), and those in the Americas are black jaguars (Panthera onca).
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. Recently, preliminary studies also suggest that melanism might be linked to beneficial mutations in the immune system.
Melanism is relatively common in leopards, with melanistic individuals making up approximately 11% of the species, occurring at very different rates in different subspecies with non-random distribution.
Data on the distribution of leopard populations indicates that melanism occurs in five subspecies: Javan leopard (P. p. melas), African leopard (P. p. pardus), Indian leopard (P. p. fusca), Indochinese leopard (P. p. delacouri) and Sri Lankan leopard (P. p. kotiya). Black leopards are common in the equatorial rainforest of Malaya and the tropical rainforest on the slopes of some African mountains such as Mount Kenya. They are also common in Java, and are reported from densely forested areas in southwestern China, Myanmar, Assam and Nepal, from Travancore and other parts of southern India where they may be more numerous than spotted leopards. One was recorded in the equatorial forest of Cameroon.
The taxonomic status of captive black leopards and the extent of hybridization between different subspecies is uncertain. Therefore, coordinated breeding programs for black leopards do not exist in European and North American zoos. Black leopards occupy space needed for breeding of endangered leopard subspecies and are not kept within the North American Species Survival Plan.
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. Individuals with two copies of the allele are darker (the black background colour is more dense) than ones with just one copy, whose background colour may appear to be dark charcoal rather than black.
The black jaguar was considered a separate species by indigenous peoples. English naturalist W. H. Hudson wrote:
The jaguar is a beautiful creature, the ground-colour of the fur a rich golden-red tan, abundantly marked with black rings, enclosing one or two small spots within. This is the typical colouring 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, Ontario, Canada. The offspring were a charcoal black jaglion female and a tan-coloured, spotted jaglion male. It therefore appears that the jaguar melanism gene is also dominant over normal lion colouration (the black jaguar sire was presumably carrying the black on only one allele). In preserved, stuffed specimens, black leopards often fade to a rusty colour but black jaguars fade to a chocolate brown colour.
There are no authenticated cases of truly melanistic cougars. Melanistic cougars have never been photographed or killed in the wild, and none have ever been bred. Unconfirmed sightings, known as the "North American black panther", are currently attributed to errors in species identification by non-experts, and by the mimetic 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.
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.
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.
According to his translator Smellie (1781), the description was taken from two black jaguars exhibited in London some years previously.
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 feces and hair found by locals to labs for analysis, which identified it as feces from dogs that had feasted on swamp wallaby, and hair from a domestic cat. Mr Williams said he also had known leopard feces 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 feces and domestic cat hair. This indicated the lab incapable of distinguishing between leopard hairs and those of domestic animals, casting doubt on the previous findings. 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.
Culture and literature
- Bagheera in The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling is a panther that mentors the human character Mowgli.
- The Black Panther Party was an African-American political organization.
- The Black Panther is a Marvel Comics superhero based in the fictional African country of Wakanda.
- Eizirik, E.; Yuhki, N.; Johnson, W. E.; Menotti-Raymond, M.; Hannah, S. S.; O'Brien, S. J. (2003). "Molecular Genetics and Evolution of Melanism in the Cat Family" (PDF). Current Biology. 13 (5): 448–453. doi:10.1016/S0960-9822(03)00128-3. PMID 12620197.
- "Big Cat Facts". Animal Facts Encyclopedia. Jenise Alongi. Retrieved 2016-03-17.
- Sunquist, F. (December 2007). "Malaysian Mystery Leopards". National Wildlife Magazine. 45 (1).
- da Silva L. G., K.; Kawanishi, K.; Henschel P.; Kittle, A.; Sanei, A.; Reebin, A.; Dale Miquelle, D., Stein, A. B., Watson, A., Kekule, L. B., Machado, R. B., Eizirik, E. (2017). "Mapping black panthers: Macroecological modeling of melanism in leopards (Panthera pardus)". PLoS ONE 12 (4): e0170378.
- Searle, A. G. (1968). Comparative Genetics of Coat Colour in Mammals. Logos Press, London.
- Kawanishi, K.; Sunquist, M.E.; Eizirik, E.; Lynam, A.J.; Ngoprasert, D.; Shahruddin, W.N.W.; Rayan, D.M.; Sharma, D.S.K.; Steinmetz, R. (2010). "Near fixation of melanism in panthers of the Malay Peninsula". Journal of Zoology. 282: 201–206. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2010.00731.x.
- Gippoliti, S. and Meijaard, E. (2007). "Taxonomic uniqueness of the Javan Leopard; an opportunity for zoos to save it". Contributions to Zoology 76 (1): 55–57.
- Richardson, D. M. (2001). "A simple analysis of leopard (Panthera pardus) space within EAZA collections". In Hiddinga, B.; Brouwer, K. EAZA Yearbook 1999/2000. Amsterdam: EAZA Executive Office. pp. 391–392.
- Swanson, B., Fletchall, N., Shoemaker, A. (2003). Felid Taxon Advisory Group North American Regional Collection Plan 2003–2005. Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
- Harmsworth Natural History (1910), W. H. Hudson
- "Bear Creek Sanctuary – Jaglions". Bear Creek Sanctuary. Retrieved 10 March 2012.
- Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc (1801) Histoire Naturelle, Paris : Hacquart, an VIII.
- Pennant, Thomas (1771) Synopsis of Quadrupeds, J. Monk, p. 180
- Duff, Eamonn (2010-06-20). "On the hunt for the big cat that refuses to die". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 2010-06-23.
Rumours have circulated for decades about a colony of panther-like cats roaming Sydney's western fringes and beyond: from Lithgow to Mudgee and the Hawkesbury to the Hunter Valley.
- "Alien Big Cats – Australian Investigation". Animal X. Series 3. Episode 10.
- Gamble, Cyndi; Rodney Griffiths (2004). Leopards: Natural History & Conservation. Voyageur Press. ISBN 0896586561.
- "Ben Kingsley to Voice Bagheera in Disney's The Jungle Book". Deadline. June 25, 2014. Archived from the original on 29 June 2014. Retrieved June 25, 2014.
- Photographs of a melanistic bobcat and a melanistic jaguar – Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
- Mutant Leopards, Mutant Jaguars and Mutant Pumas (text licensed under GFDL)