The North American Black Panther – Myth or Reality?

A cryptid is an animal whose existence is unconfirmed. But a cryptid can also be a known animal in an unexpected place, and black panthers fall into this category.

A panther is a term applied to several species of big cat when they occur as solid black. Leopards, bobcats and jaguars for instance are usually spotted – but melanism (an increased amount of dark pigment caused by melanin) can cause any of these species to be all black. Spotted and all-black kittens can occur in the same litter. Black may even be able to become the dominant color in a small breeding population.

But is there such a thing as a black mountain lion (also called cougar or puma)? Wildlife experts say no because no one has ever photographed or shot one. However, verbal accounts exist from history. Black panthers were well-known to the early settlers in the Appalachian mountains and the Ozarks. Frightening encounters with black panthers were published in Texas newspapers in the 1800s. The history of Montgomery County, Arkansas, is said to contain the experience of one Emily Stacy. Home alone with her children, she was forced to load a musket and shoot through the door at a panther that was trying to get into her house. In the morning, the panther - described as a black mountain lion lay dead on her porch.

This illustration of a “Black Puma, Felis Nigra” is a watercolor drawing by James Hope Stewart published in 1843 in “The Naturalist’s Library, Mammalia, Vol. 1, Cats” by Sir William Jardine. Inside, it says that the puma, also commonly known as panther, mountain lion or cougar, is native to North, Central and South America. It’s been said that two black cougars from America were exhibited in London in the 1700s, although evidence no longer exists to prove they were actually cougars and not another type of big cat.

If the many sightings of black panthers in recent years are not of melanistic cougars, what else could they be? Many people don’t know that the American West, especially the Southwest, was the natural home of jaguars. They were almost completely hunted out by the early 1900s, and the last known pair were shot in Arizona by 1965. It was 2001 before photographic evidence proved that jaguars had returned to the United States. (There are better pics of jaguars to be found but THIS pic is from video footage of one of the jaguars in Arizona.)

Is it possible that black jaguars are responsible for some of the black panther sightings? Are black jaguars newly returned to the US also or have they been here all along? Perhaps natural selection played a role in their survival – black cats might have been better able to stay out of sight and avoid being killed by hunters.

In many instances, witnesses to the black cats may be misjudging their size. A jaguarundi is a cat closely related to the cougar but much smaller. It can occur in several colors including solid dark gray or chocolate brown. The cat is known to live in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida. Jaguarundis have also been reported in several states bordering these ones. From a distance, people would notice the jaguarundi’s build is unlike that of a house cat (see photo at right), and it has a very long, thick tail like a cougar’s. It could easily resemble a black panther. Plus, the jaguarundi likes the daylight hours, making it easier to be spotted by humans.

The exotic pet trade might provide another reason for black panther sightings. In 2009, the Humane Society of the United States pointed out that of the estimated 5,000 to 7,000 tigers in the country, only 10 percent are in zoos: the rest are privately owned. It’s the same with many other big cat species, as it has been unbelievably easy to purchase these animals as pets in the past (more and more legislation is being written now to ban exotic pets). Dealers may employ selective breeding to create a more attractive (and expensive) “product”, including black panthers. Big cats may escape or may be deliberately set free by owners who can no longer afford to keep them. Most don’t survive on their own for long – but some just might.

Another possibility exists because most big cat species can interbreed, and many big cats possess the genes for a black coat. If a pet leopard escaped or was released, is it far-fetched to imagine that it might breed with an indigenous mountain lion? For that matter, a wandering wild jaguar might meet up with a wild cougar. In either case, some new DNA might be introduced into the existing wild population.

Meanwhile, there’s no doubt that confirmed sightings of normal-colored cougars are on the rise in places other than the western United States and Canada. These creatures once roamed almost all of North America, and may be regaining some of their former territory. In recent years, cougars have been spotted in Michigan ( ), Alaska, Kansas, Indiana and even West Virginia. Since there are several subspecies of mountain lion, perhaps one or more of the subspecies are able to naturally produce black offspring. And a black lion might be found anywhere their usual-colored siblings are. For instance, the Florida Panther is really a cougar – and there have also been reports of black cougars in that state.

While many plausible explanations exist for the existence of an American black panther, there is also the slimmest, slightest chance that it’s a true cryptid – a brand new species or subspecies that we know nothing about. Just such an animal is appearing in other countries. Hundreds of black panther sightings are reported in Britain every year and also in Australia.

Dani Harper

Your turn – Do you think black panthers could exist in the United States? Have you ever seen any of these big cats in ANY color?

If you want to know more about British or Australian big cats, try these interesting articles:


  1. I live in Cherokee Co NC, its the farthest west you can go in NC. the reason I am searching the internet for Black Panthers is several recently have been spotted in our area. One was spotted by a neighbor who I do believe. Another neighbor said she saw a large black dog go through her yard and her dog went crazy. I'm wondering if it was a dog.

  2. Ok guys!!!! People think I am crazy but I seen a black panther cross the road on friday in nothern part of arkansas, It did not dart across the road it was really low to the ground and it look like it was creeping across, the car beside me blew at me and was smiling, I could not believe my eyes, the tail on that cat was thick and long, all I can say is wow!!!

  3. Oh Yes!, My husband and I saw one many years ago. It was walking (slinking) across an open pasture near the edge of town in southeastern OK.
    At first I thought it was a large dog ,but the tail was too long and it was gliding back and forth.

    There have been several sighting in this area but the authorties insist there is no such animal.

  4. Absolutely they exsist! I have no problem believing the old timers accounts of "black panthers" in the appalachian mountains,my family's farm is in those mountains just outside of craigsville WVA,my family has seen panters down there for years,its not what used to be,they are still there

  5. They are here, I have seen one myself about eight years ago in the blue ridge mountains in Virginia. I had come to the top of a waterfall and looked over the edge and saw it drinking from the base of the fall about 40 feet from me. It saw me and quickly ran off. It was very sensitive,perhaps even intuitive, and I believe this is why few see them. I have spent A LOT of time in those mountains and I am certain of what I saw.

  6. I am positive they exist. While my parents house was being built in north GA about 10 years ago we had a few reports of the workers seeing one. Directly behind the house is from what we were told a 500 mile nature preserve. Weve seen lots of deer and wild turkey however we were skeptical of course. But then a neighbor told us he heard it screaming one night. Also around the pond we found tracks. One morning I heard a very eerie low but loud guttural growl coming from the woods as I was standing on the porch. My mom heard it as well. Finally ultimate proof was when my sister spotted it in broad daylight slinking by the pond. She described it as about the size of a medium dog all black with a long tail. We haven't seen or heard anything of it in years. A few more houses were built in the area and I think he moved on. I know n GA seems an odd place to see one and we always figured it must have escaped or been set free. Idk, but yes they definitely exist!

  7. I witnessed a small 70 lb Jaguar in EASTERN NC, as far east as you can get. It was crossing route 12 just above Oregon Inlet by 2.5 miles. This is the only road to the Outer Banks.

    The cat was sighted in broad daylight and was running across the road because he didn't hear my car coming. He had shorter legs than a Mountain Lion,a long thick tail, round ears, and he was BLACK, not grey. I could see the pattern on the head. This phase is known as the melanistic phase. I spent much time on the internet studying all the big cats and could clearly see the difference from the Leopard which is the only other Melanistic phase black cat. Many others in the area have seen and continue to see them although I susect not every week.
    The area was off limits for most people and was a combination of African Savannah grass and Swampland. There is a pattern of them using the lowlands from Alabama to NC to live and hide. They are MUCH more elusive than a simple Mountain Lion. They have everything they need to eat. Deer, ducks. geese. swans,Nutria, squirrels, rabbits, and left over seafood at both the Ocean and Sound sides.

    The state of NC re-released the Red Wolf in the same area knowing he would thrive without interference with people. They are here and definitely have enough of them for a breeding poplulation.

  8. I have heard them and my grandpa walked up on one. i live in Perry county Arkansas. There have been many sightings here. The scream will make the hair on your neck stand up.

  9. My parents live in Hillsborough, NC and their property borders part of Duke Forest. They have seen and heard a very large black cat. It was definately NOT a domestic cat that they saw. It had a large head and long tail and was about two feet high and about 4-5 feet long excluding the tail. They observed it jumping a 6' high chain-link fence onto Piedmont Electric's property that also borders their property. My parents were afraid to go outside at night. The animal was spotted by several people, not just my parents. The scream it made would make your heart skip a beat!

  10. about 5 months ago my grandmother called me saying that she saw 3 mountain lions in back of her house she stayed in the house and kept looking and she told me that there was something odd about the last mountain lion and I asked why and she told me the last one was black, she sent me a picture but my phone broke before I could show anyone

  11. When I was 6 years old I saw a long, black animal move across a cow pasture near my home in Northeast Tennessee. I couldn't see for certain what species it was because I was so far away, and this happen at dusk just before sundown. But I know it wasn't a dog, coyote or bear. It was too long and low to the ground. It crossed about 100 yards in only a few seconds. When I told my dad about it, he told me he saw a black panther years ago in the same area, and my mom told me about her dad who heard cougar screams one night. So yes, I do believe black panthers inhabit North America.

  12. I live in Oregon state in what's called the Columbia river gorge. I've seen tan cougars in the woods here before but just last week my Dad and I saw a very large what looked identical to a cougar but it was pitch black. We were working in the woods by his house and I just happened to look up and saw what looked like a large black dog sitting up tall in the road. It was probably 30<40 yards away I asked him what's that and he turned around and saw it too. It sat for a second then stood up and I told him in these exact words, that's a freaking huge cat. It took a couple steps toward us then leaped into the brush. It's tail was probably 3-4 feet long. Very large cat. Bigger than the cougars I'd seen in the past. Not sure if you'd call it a black panther but it was a very large pitch black feline. Scary that close.

  13. My first degree is in Biology so I had accepted the commonly held (and taught) belief that any sighting of a large black cat was the melanistic phase of the mountain lion. That is, until I saw one for myself fully in my headlights only a few feet away for several seconds. It was too big to be a mountain lion, had a long bushy upcurved tail, had NO spots of any sort, and sent a chill down my spine when it looked at me. I saw it about 15 years ago in a not-so-remote area of North Alabama very near Smith Lake. This cat was about 5+ feet long, maybe just under 3 feet at the shoulder.

    1. A.L. Meloche
      I have seen and taken print from a large black cat that experts in Canada and the U.S. cannot distinguish as either a jaguar or a cougar. Again in Ontario, many sightings reported to Ontario Puma are of black cougars,,, and the Ministry of Natural Resources dismisses these as jaguar.

  14. looks like these people saw one just the other day!

  15. Over the last Five years I have seen three Black Panthers .Two was twice the size of my German sheppard and the other one was running fast and close to the ground not as big as my dog but close.The two older large cats I only seen just before night fall sitting in road and crossing into other thick woods.My neighbor (big land owner )
    Admitted to me to have seen a pair and advise all his hunters renting the property had told him that they had seen them.One of my other friend and neighbor did not believe me until one ran infront of him and jumped a six and a half foot hedge row.My co-worker came to me one day and ask me had I ever seen a Black panther on my road near the swamp When i said yes he was relieved he said I knew I was not crazy.My exwife saw one in that same area about 05 45 am in the morning and called me asking what kind of panthers we have she thaught it might be normal she is from a differnt country so she is not sure of what lives here.

  16. I am only here Because I am researching to see if what I saw was even possible. About two weeks ago in southeastern indiana I saw a large low to the ground black cat with a very large tail cross the road into my hayfield moving towards my pond. Neighbors have made reports lately and o discarded them as nonsense. Obviously not now. More to come!!!

  17. My folks are from Montgomery County, the story is very much alive there and my mother and grandmother have told me stories of shrieks that sound like a women screaming that are often attributed to panthers. Some of the locals from the time of my mother's childhood claim to have seen them, but beyond the "screams" none of my relatives have ever actually seen one.