The beautiful, mysterious black panther has long fascinated me (and many others). The name “black panther” is often given to black leopards (Panthera pardus) and jaguars (Panthera onca).What exactly is a black panther?
Black panthers: a black or melanistic leopard (left), and a jaguar (Photos: http://www.cgwp.co.uk).
In February, wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas and a team of scientists from San Diego Zoo, captured the first photographs of wild black leopards in Kenya since 1909.
There had been reports of black leopards in the area previously, but these photos have confirmed it and could have important implications for the conservation of African leopards—one of eight recognised leopard subspecies.
A Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) at Singapore Zoo. The Sri Lankan is one of eight subspecies of leopard (Photo: Nick McIndoe).
The word “panther” is used to describe members of the Panthera genus—the “big cats”—tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars and snow leopards. To confuse things even more, the mountain lion/puma/cougar (Puma concolor) is often called panther.
Black panther refers to any member of Panthera who sports a black coat, however, even though there have been reports of black lions and tigers, none have ever been scientifically documented, making black leopards and jaguars the only “true” black panthers.
Though technically, there is no such thing as a black panther; the term does not exist in taxonomy and they are not separate species’, rather, leopards and jaguars that carry a genetic mutation known as melanism—the opposite of albinism—hence their other name, melanistic leopard/jaguar.
The colour of leopard fur is controlled by two genes involved in the production of pigments called melanins. One gene produces the dark pigment eumelanin, while the other produces reddish pheomelanin. In black leopards, the gene that produces the reddish colour is damaged, permanently turning off production of pheomelanin. Eumelanin is also deposited in the iris giving black leopards their distinctive amber-coloured eyes.
In jaguars, melanism is largely inherited—they have a fault in the gene that produces black pigment, greatly increasing the amount deposited in the animal’s fur.
Another myth is that melanistic leopards and jaguars are more aggressive than their “normal” counterparts.
It is thought that only 11 percent of wild leopards/jaguars are melanistic. In fact, the largest known population of black leopards in the world is on Peninsular Malaysia, where it is thought that most leopards are black—their colour giving them an advantage when hunting prey in the dense, dark rainforests. In fact, up until 2015, it was thought that most, if not all, leopards in Malaysia were black.
In Kenya as well, it is thought that most of the melanistic leopards live in the mountains, where it is possible their black coat allows them to absorb more sunlight for warmth at high altitude.
Another advantage of melanism is that despite their beauty, their coats are less desirable to poachers than the standard spotted variety.
Black panther sightings have occurred the world over. Even in New Zealand the “Canterbury black panther” pops up in the news from time-to-time, the last sighting in 2017.
Oh, and if you are ever lucky enough to see a black panther, either in the wild or in captivity, look closely—the rosettes are still there and can be seen in the sunlight.
Leopard vs Jaguar
The leopard (Panthera pardus) and jaguar (Panthera onca) do look very similar. However, jaguars are the only member of Panthera found in the Americas—leopards live in Africa and Asia.
Jaguars are larger and stockier with an obvious curve to their back. Jaguars also have larger heads and stronger jaws—while leopards kill their prey by suffocation (crushing the windpipe), jaguars crush their prey’s skull. While the fur of both leopards and jaguars sport rosettes, however jaguars’ are larger with spots inside.
Today leopards exist in about 25% of their historical range and found in Africa, south/southeast and central Asia, Arabian Peninsula and Russia. They are classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and despite this and threats such as poaching, the illegal wildlife trade, habitat loss and fragmentation, is considered the most common and adaptable “big cat”, however it is not known how many remain in the wild.
Another subspecies of leopard is the Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis). These stunning, critically endangered cats live in the mountains of Russia and China. Despite their thicker coat, they retain the plain spots on their heads and rosettes with no spot inside over the rest of their body, as in all leopards (Photo: http://www.cgwp.co.uk).
The Panthera genus most likely evolved in Asia approximately 6 to 10 million years ago. It is thought that the jaguar spilt from a common ancestor about 1.5 million years ago and either swam to America or entered via a land-bridge.
The jaguar is classified Near Threatened and while abundant in some parts of its range, its numbers are declining. The main threats are over hunting of its prey, habitat loss and fragmentation, and human/wildlife conflict.
Sadly, jaguars have been eradicated from 40% of their historical range and today occur in the USA (based on occasional sightings in the southwest, particularly Arizona, New Mexico and Texas); through Mexico to South America including: Amazonian Brazil, Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela.
The remarkable thing about jaguars is that there are no subspecies—all jaguars throughout their range are genetically connected.
A jaguar cub (left) and an adult jaguar. Note the spots inside the rosettes and bulkier head-jaguars crush the skull of their prey (Photos: http://www.cgwp.co.uk).