Sightings of “black panthers” are common in the United States, especially in Texas and the Southeastern region.
The problem as I covered in part 1 of this series is that there is no such species as a “black panther” anywhere in the world.
What about the large black cats seen in zoos and on television programs? Those are black leopards or black jaguars.
Melanism occurs when an excessive amount of black pigment dominates coloration of an animal. It happens in many animals ranging from squirrels to whitetail deer. Melanism is not uncommon in leopards in certain parts of their range. This is also true with jaguars. The black cats you see in zoos and on television are all melanistic leopards or jaguars.
The general assumption with “black panther” sightings in America is that these are black or melanistic cougars. The problem is there has never been a melanistic cougar observed by science either in a zoo, captive setting, killed by a hunter, mounted by a taxidermist or otherwise positively identified.
For melanistic cougars to be the answer to America’s “panther” question there would have to be many of them, and there is no proof of any of them.
Jaguars, however, do throw melanistic offspring and are native to Texas, western Louisiana, New Mexico, Arizona and California. They were wiped out north of Mexico more than 100 years ago, but a few individuals have been verified moving in and out of New Mexico and Arizona. And over the years, I have fielded three Texas jaguars reports I believe, two right on the Mexico line and one about 100 miles north of it.
Recent research shows that melanism is a dominant trait in jaguars. In other words, if a male jaguar for example moves into an area and starts breeding females there is a good chance much of the offspring will be melanistic as well.
Could a remnant population of jaguars survive that has the dominant melanistic genes? There is no way that’s an answer for the entire “black panther” phenomenon, but it is not out of the range of possibility for some of the sightings reported throughout the years.
It’s unlikely but within the realm of possibility.
Melanism is also present, albeit rare, in bobcats.
Melanistic bobcats have been killed and mounted in Texas. In fact, one by taxidermist Steve Moye was mounted leaping at a quail and hung in the Gander Mountain sporting goods store in Beaumont, Texas for the better part of a decade.
My experience shows that many people cannot differentiate between a bobcat and a cougar. Many are surprised that bobcats have tails at all. In fact some have tails as long as eight inches. A black bobcat could easily be labeled a “black panther” by someone who is not aware of melanism in the species.
In fact, I was sent a photo of a black bobcat back in 2011 that the reader believed was a “panther”.
I fault no one for not properly identifying animals or having questions. I consider it an honor and a privilege to get to check out the hundreds of photos sent my direction. But my conclusion is people have a very hard time identifying cats in the wild.
Besides people who don’t understand basic animal identification, the biggest problem in misidentifying cougars and bobcats is scale. A large bobcat seen at a distance with nothing to compare it to, looks much larger than it really is.
In part 1 of this series, I stated that large, feral cats of domestic lineage are the source of the majority of “black panther” sightings. You can read that here and if you’re interested in this topic I highly recommend it.
The jaguarundi is another prime candidate for “black panther” sightings. A large jaguarundi in the common dark gray or chocolate brown phase, crossing a road in front of a motorist or appearing before an unsuspecting hunter could easily be labeled a “black panther.”
Because very few people are aware of jaguarundis, it’s highly unlikely they would report seeing one. Everyone can relate to a “black panther” and virtually no one has ever heard of a jaguarundi.
These cats are native to Texas (and all the way south into South America) but there has been no verified sighting in years. I do believe as some research suggests, there are isolated pockets of them north of their currently accepted range.
Is the jaguarundi responsible for many “black panther” reports in the United States?
Are they the source of some sightings?
I have no doubt.
Some suggest the “black panther” sightings are the result of a “circus train” crash where its animals got loose. This story has been repeated over and over in Texas, and throughout the South with exact locations changing with the retelling.
I find no evidence of this.
If black leopards were to escape, the chance of them surviving and producing offspring wide-ranging enough for a phenomenon like this to take place is beyond far-fetched.
Additionally, why would only black leopards escape? Where are the lions, tigers and elephants?
Considering the bulk of a wild cat’s hunting skills are taught, this is not even remotely likely.
There is no way there are hundreds, if not thousands of black leopards running around the country due to a circus train crash. So far, all intensive re-wilding efforts of tigers have failed so how could circus leopards escape, survive and create a nation-wide population?
Isolated cases of exotic cats escaping have occurred, but in my opinion they are not the source of many sightings in Texas or at any other location in North America.
In my opinion the majority of these black panther these black longtails of domestic lineage discussed in part 1 of the series, standard cougars seen in low light conditions, black bobcats (because we have proof they exist), jaguarundis in parts of their historical range and I even leave the door open for a few of them even being jaguars.
The thing people have to consider is we are dealing with cats, not some creature with unknown abilities.
I have personally been sent hundreds of game camera photos of bobcats. Cougars which are one of the planet’s most elusive animals show up on game cameras in the American West all the time and even super rare and shy animals like snow leopards are common on these cameras set by researchers.
So, if these mysterious cats are all either black cougars or black jaguars why does no one get a clear daytime trail camera photo or even a clear night shot? The same exact areas have cameras getting pictures of bobcats and standard cougars so why are the black ones so elusive?
I don’t believe they are.
I believe the main answer is the “black longtail” of very domestic lineage discussed in part 1 of the series. I have seen many of these photos and even captured one on camera myself.
It’s not an exciting answer if you want this mysterious cat to be something more grand than a feral and perhaps even evolving version of Felis catus but in my opinion it is the clear answer for a vast majority of sightings.
Something else to ponder there are “black panther” sightings throughout the UK, in Australia and other areas with no indigenous leopards or jaguars.
Ask yourself what cat is very common in these areas that is commonly black?
Yep, Felis catus.
I will be doing more features on this topic and communicating with biologists and genetic experts on how feral cats in the wild might be adapting and changing in ways that makes them as wild as any leopard.
Submit photos to firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to see them and share with our readers.
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