A column from a few Halloweens ago provides the answer to the question below.
Q: My son swears he saw a black panther in a wooded area while he was hunting. Could this be true?
A: Over the last 30 years I have had no fewer than a dozen people tell me they have seen a black panther. We are not talking about in zoos, books or movies, but in the wild at various places in the southern United States. Are the stories true? Do giant black cats exist in North America? From an ecological and genetic standpoint, black cats have an element of mystery that has nothing to do with superstition or Halloween.
The black panther of jungle lore certainly exists. Black phases of leopards in Asia and Africa and of jaguars in tropical America occur in the wild. The genetic phenomenon known as melanism, which results in an individual being almost completely black, occurs in many mammal species in which shades of white, gray, tan or brown are typically more prevalent. Melanism has been documented in coyotes, gray squirrels and even rarely in white-tailed deer, producing almost pure black individuals.
In rare instances a native U.S. species of large cat, the bobcat, can be completely black. Bobcats occur throughout most of the United States, southern Canada and Mexico. Photographs and museum skins offer scientific verification that such individuals exist. Most of the verified records are from Florida, but at least one black bobcat was found in eastern Canada. Presumably, the genetic condition that causes a bobcat to be black could occur geographically anywhere in between Florida and Canada.
When people report seeing a “black panther” in the wild in North America, they usually mean the mountain lion (aka cougar, puma, catamount). And reports of people seeing black mountain lions abound. Yet, no photograph, no carcass, no scientific proof of any sort has ever been provided to indicate that a mountain lion can be solid black. This does not mean that a melanistic mountain lion does not exist somewhere or did not exist in the past. It only means that its existence has not been verified.
I can give several plausible explanations for why someone in the Southeast might claim to have seen a black panther. The first is that the person saw a black bobcat. Confusing a bobcat for a mountain lion may sound far-fetched because bobcats are smaller and have shorter tails, but I know this can happen. I have gone to look at three different road-killed cats in South Carolina that someone had declared was a dead mountain lion. All were large bobcats.
Another explanation is that a person might mistake a large, long-tailed, dark-colored dog or coyote for a big cat, particularly at night or in fading light. To the embarrassment of two different individuals who made such sightings, the animals left footprints that were made into plaster casts for identification – dog feet both times.
Another possibility exists in many southern states where it is legal to keep big cats as pets, including tigers, leopards and jaguars. The black varieties of leopards and jaguars are proportionately more common among captive animals than in the wild because of selective breeding. Having a big cat escape from a zoo or a personal holding facility is certainly not unheard of. A big cat owner might be reluctant to admit that an enormous, stealthy predator had been unleashed in the neighborhood. So such a sighting would not be validated by the pet owner’s saying, “Hey, that’s my missing black leopard.”
My preferred explanation for people who believe they have seen a large, long-tailed black cat in the wild is that they actually did see a black mountain lion. Maybe they exist but are so rare that the carcass of one has never been found. Halloween is probably not the best time to be believed if you report such a sighting, but if you see one, it just might be real.
Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.