Black panthers are so rare that some people say they don't actually exist! It's true that the "black panther" is not a species in itself, but there are certainly big cats with a melanistic gene that gives them a distinct black appearance.
Discover which cats the term "black panther" describes, how many black panthers exist today, and why they are so elusive.
What Are Black Panthers?
The term "black panther" relates to multiple animals and is not an individual species. Instead, it describes a dark coloration caused by melanism in the skin, which causes a big cat - predominantly leopards and jaguars - to appear black.
Melanism - or excess Black pigments- is caused by dominant or recessive alleles. This dark pigment in jaguars is caused by dominant alleles, whereas in leopards, it is recessive ones.
Black Panthers do have the distinctive spot and rosette patterns of the leopard and jaguar, but they are harder to spot against such a dark background.
There are reports of other melanistic big cats - such as cougars - though these sightings are rare and remain unverified. However, the term can is sometimes used to describe dark lynxes, bobcats, tigers, pumas, and jaguarundis, the latter having the highest percentage of melanistic individuals, with 80% sporting a black coat.
The jaguarundi is an unspotted wildcat native to several areas of the Americas, from Texas to Argentina. Despite the name, these cats are not jaguars and are more closely related to cougars.
How Many Black Panthers Are There?
Black panther habitats are vast and diverse; leopards live predominantly in Africa but can also be found in some Asian countries such as China and India. In contrast, jaguars live in the tropical regions of Central and South America (with a few scattered through the southwest of the USA).
Their environments range from rainforest and woodland areas to marshes, swamps, and sometimes deserts or mountains.
Black Panthers are the best climbers of all big cats and often can be found lounging around in trees. They also like environments that feature water sources such as streams and rivers. They are more prevalent in dense rainforest environments - like the Amazon - where the melanistic gene can present in around 50% of jaguars. But they are far less common in open savannah, where they must hunt during the day. This is because these open environments don't allow the Black panther to camouflage as well, making successful hunts more challenging. This means that melanistic genes appear in only an estimated 11% of leopard populations.
Even in dense tropical areas such as the Congo basin, sightings of these regal cats remain rare. This is more challenging for researchers to understand because leopards are abundant here, and it is the perfect environment for a black panther to reside.
But African Black Panthers are not a myth; recent photographs captured these beautiful creatures for the first time in 100 years. Still, predicting the exact number of black panthers is challenging because they are elusive and aren't one species.
Why Are Black Panthers So Rare?
Black Panthers are also less fertile than other big cats, which makes successful breeding attempts less frequent. In addition, many big cats have white spots on their ears and tails, which help them to communicate with other cats, including their young ones. But Black Panthers don't have these spots, which makes it more difficult for them to communicate potential threats or dangers, which can place the cubs at a greater risk.
Cats use several cues for communication, including scents, chirps, and growls, but visual communication is also important. For example, mother cats sometimes stretch out their ears and flash their white marks to signal danger to their cubs; this allows them to communicate a message without making a noise. Without these marks, it's more challenging for her to convey specific messages, and her cubs could find themselves in danger.
Sadly, like many wild animals, black Panthers are also threatened by humans and environmental activity encroaching on their homes. This is one of many reasons why saving the rainforests is so important - to provide a home for these beautiful big cats.
Are Black Panthers Elusive?
People sometimes refer to Black Panthers as the "ghosts of the forest" because their dark coloration makes them challenging to spot, particularly at nighttime, allowing them to stalk prey undetected.
Spotting a regular jaguar or leopard is challenging enough due to their elusive nature; they spend most daylight hours hiding out of sight, choosing to hunt by night. Part of their success as predators stems from their ability to move about their environments undetected, which is why we view them as an elusive species.
And when it comes to black panthers, this effect is multiplied. Most of these majestic cats live in dense vegetation, so their environment camouflages them well. And their black hue is even harder to detect under the cover of night. This is perfect for the black panther, which can stalk prey undetected and hide from predators. Still, it makes them hard for the naked eye to see, which is why most of the black panther "sightings" are courtesy of high-tech cameras.