A panther’s just a big black cat, right? Ehh, sometimes.
It’s not actually a species, but a cat-ch all (sorry) for black or “melanistic” big cats. The most common are the leopard and jaguar, and in case you’re wondering, there’s an easy way to tell them apart.
As well as being beefier, the Central and South American jaguar has extra spots inside its “rosettes”.
The leopard doesn’t have these, but it does have the run of Africa and Asia.
How can you tell if they’re black? Well, even the melanistic ones have rosettes, because appearing all black is mainly a trick of the light.
I also say “common”, but
worldwide, only 10-11% of leopards and jaguars are melanistic.
This can vary hugely by area though, and according to Dr. Byron Weckworth, Director of Conservation Genetics at big cat charity Panthera:
Melanistic cats are more common in moist forests […] which suggests an adaptive advantage […] perhaps related to thermoregulation […]
So they can look and feel cool with a black coat.
But what causes it?
Let’s throw in another animal while we’re at it, and talk about the agouti gene.
Named after the Central and South American rodent, it’s thought to control the amount of black pigment in a hair. The connected and less cutely-named MC1R gene is also suspected of causing melanism.
The “black” set of genes is dominant in jaguars (so only one parent needs it to pop out a black cub) and recessive in leopards (both parents need it). That doesn’t make black jaguars more common than black leopards, but
it partly explains why we didn’t see an African one for more than a hundred years.
Between a 1909 photograph from Ethiopia and some 2017 sightings in Kenya, Africa’s black leopards were mostly rumour. Losing about 66% of their natural habitat probably didn’t help. But we can’t point the finger completely at humans – in the words of Nick Pilford, from San Diego Zoo’s Global Institute for Conservation Research:
…in Kenya many years ago, back when hunting was legal [in the 1950s and ‘60s], there was a known thing that you didn’t hunt black leopards. If you saw them, you didn’t take it.
It was only in 2018 that we grabbed another non-lethal shot, thanks to Pilford and co.’s camera traps in Kenya’s Loisaba Conservancy.
This is in stark contrast to some areas of Malaysia, where up to 50% of leopards are black. So why are they more common in Asia?
The prime suspect: camouflage.
Unless there’s a veil of vegetation rippling over you, you’re very easy to spot if you’re a solid colour. Tigers, leopards and jaguars have chaotic coats for a reason: to break up their silhouette. But if you’re entirely black and walking across savanna, that’s all you are.
That’s probably why melanistic lions aren’t a thing. Only one has ever been recorded, discovered in what is now Iran and shot by hunters in the 19th century (because of course it was).
So what about tigers, they live in forests, right?
Black tigers have been sighted in parts of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar as far back as 1772, but from the photos I found, it seemed to be short-hand for “really thick black stripes” rather than a full-on black coat.
Although we’ve confirmed 14 species of cat don ninja-gear, only four of them fall under the term “panther”. Here’s the full list if you’re curious:
- African golden cat (Caracal aurata)
- Asiatic golden cat (Catopuma temminckii)
- Bobcat (Lynx rufus)
- Geoffroy’s cat (Leopardus geoffroyi)
- Guiña/Chilean cat/kodkod (Leopardus guigna)
- Jaguar (Panthera onca)
- Jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi)
- Jungle cat (Felis chaus)
- Leopard (Panthera pardus)
- Marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata)
- Northern tiger cat (Leopardus tigrinus)
- Pampus cat (Leopardus colocolo)
- Serval (Leptailurus serval)
- Southern tiger cat (Leopardus guttulus).
So thanks to the bobcat and jaguarundi, a panther isn’t always a “big cat”, either.
Something else that might surprise you: they’re not the coolest cats in their neighbourhood.
A 2012 study by Graipel et al. found that white and other bright markings, like on the cat’s ears, can be vital for nocturnal communication with others of its kind. With a completely black coat, both sides might miss a few cues.
So despite looking awesome, panthers are probably really socially awkward.
One exception is our bizarre friend the jaguarundi. Being most active by day, its darker coat wouldn’t get in the way of any signals. The above study group was up to 80% melanistic, so who knows, it might have actually improved its chance of dating. I take back what I said about you.
It’s not all about looks though, as a darker coat might be healthier.
According to Eizirik et al., the genes at play in a black coat could help disease resistance. For example, the aforementioned MC1R gene sits in the same super-family as human gene CCR5, which acts as a “doorway” for certain viruses. Like a genetic bouncer.
Okay, so several kinds of cat can be “panthers”. But they’re always black, right?
Florida panther says “Hi!”
This endangered cat is a subspecies of the puma, cougar or mountain lion. And guess what: since 1730, they’ve been known as panthers in parts of the US too. In the 13th century, “panther” could also mean an especially large and dangerous regular leopard.
So does the origin of the word help us at all?
Nope. There are about as many theories about that as there are species.
A popular one is the Greek combo of “pan” and “thēr“, meaning “all beast” (seems about right). Another is the old French word for leopard, and, just to mix things up, an East Asian word meaning “yellow-ish animal”. There’s also pundarīka, a Sanskrit word for (sigh) tiger.
What can we learn from this?
A panther is not necessarily big or black, and if it is, its coolness is literal rather than social. But it’s still a beautiful, intriguing cat, and not something you’d ever want loose in your house.
Panthers are either black versions of various wild cats, or American mountain lions and their subspecies.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing
Bates, Mary. 2019. “Is being a black panther beneficial? It depends“. National Geographic.
Bhattcharya, Shaoni. 2003. “Black cats may be the more fortunate felines“. New Scientist.
Eizirik, Eduardo et al. 2003. “Molecular Genetics and Evolution of Melanism in the Cat Family“. Current Biology, 13: 448–453.
“Florida Panther“. No date. National Wildlife Federation.
Goldman, Jason G. 2019. “African black leopard seen for first time in 100 years“. National Geographic.
Graipel, Maurício Eduardo et al., 2019. “Melanism evolution in the cat family is influenced by intraspecific communication under low visibility“. PLoSONE https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0226136
Harper, Douglas. No date. “Panther (n)“. Online Etymology Dictionary.
“Jaguar: Panthera onca“. No date. San Diego Zoo.
Langley, Liz. 2017. “Can You Spot the Difference Between a Jaguar and a Leopard?“. National Geographic.
Langley, Liz. 2018. “A Black Panther May Not Be What You Think“. National Geographic.
Mazak, Vratislav. 1963. “A Note on the Lion’s Mane“. Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde : im Auftrage der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Säugetierkunde e.V. 29:124-127.
McPherson, Sarah. No date. “Jaguar guide: how to identify, where to see and conservation“. Discover Wildlife (BBC).
“Mountain Lion“. No date. National Wildlife Federation.
“Panther“. No date. Collins English Dictionary.
“Panther“. No date. Merriam-Webster Online.
“Panthera“. No date. New World Encyclopaedia.
Rafferty, John P. 2020. “Black Panther“. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Rudnai, Judith A. 1973. “The Social Life of the Lion“. Washington Square East.
Singh, L.A.K. 1999. “Born Black: The Melanistic Tiger in India“. WWF-India.
Zaccaria, Jamie. 2019. “Wild Cats 101: Black Cats and More on Melanism“. Panthera.org.
Featured image credit: ToooPRaaaK, via Pixabay.