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.
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.
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.
http://www.savethecougar.org/ ), 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.
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: