Usually people believe that Black Panther means black leopard or jaguar, but the fact is it is typically a melanistic color variant of any of several species of larger cat. Black panther in Latin America means black jaguar (Panthera onca), in Asia and Africa they are black leopards (Panthera pardus), and in North America they may be black jaguars or possibly black cougars (Puma concolor).
Black panthers are also reported as cryptids in areas such as the United Kingdom, United States and Australia, and if these do exist, their species is not known. Captive black panthers may be black jaguars, or more commonly black leopards. The name “panther” is often limited to the black variants of the species, but also commonly refers to those that are normally colored (tawny or spotted), or to white color variants: white panthers.
Melanism in leopards (Panthera pardus) is due to recessive allele. These color variants are not jet-black, close examination will show that the typical markings of leopard or jaguar are still present, but are hidden by the excess black pigment melanin, giving an effect similar to that of printed silk. Both melanistic and non-melanistic cats can be littermates. Albino or leucistic individuals of the same species are known as white panthers.
It is believed that melanism may bestow a selective advantage to animals under certain conditions since it is more common in regions of dense forest, where illumination levels are lower. Recent, initial studies also indicate that melanism might be associated to beneficial mutations in the immune system.
Black leopards are reported from most densely forested areas in Myanmar, southwestern China, Nepal, Assam (north-east India), and parts of southern India and are said to be common in Java and the southern part of the Malay Peninsula where they may be more numerous than the normal spotted cats. They are less common in tropical Africa, but have been reported from Ethiopia (formerly Abyssinia), forests of Mount Kenya and from the Aberdares. One was recorded by Peter Turnbull-Kemp in the equatorial forest of Cameroon. Skin color is a mixture of blue, black, gray, and purple.
Myth about black leopards
Melanistic leopards are the most common form of black panther in captivity and they have been selectively bred for decades in zoos and the exotic pet trades. Black leopards are smaller and more lightly built than normally-pigmented individuals.
It’s a myth that black leopards are often rejected by their mothers at an early age because of their color. Fact is that the poor temperament comes into captive strains as a side-effect of inbreeding and it is this poor temperament that leads to problems of maternal care in captivity. According to Funk and Wagnalls’ Wildlife Encyclopedia, captive black leopards are less fertile than normal ones, with average litter sizes of 1.8 and 2.1, respectively. This is likely due to inbreeding depression.
In the early 1980s, Glasgow Zoo, in Scotland, acquired a black leopard, nicknamed the ‘Cobweb Panther’, from Dublin Zoo. This animal had a uniformly black coat profusely sprinkled with white hairs. Its appearance was as though draped with spider webs. The condition appeared to be vitiligo; as she aged, the white became more extensive. Since then, other “cobweb panthers” have been reported in zoos.
Pseudo-melanism (abundism) occurs in leopards. Such leopards have normal background color, but the spots are more densely packed than normal and merge to obscure the golden-brown background color. Any spots on the flanks and limbs that have not merged into the mass of swirls and stripes are unusually small and discrete, rather than forming rosettes. The face and underparts are paler and speckled like those of ordinary spotted leopards.
Richard Lydekker described specimens of pseudo-melanistic leopards found in South Africa in the late 19th century:
The ground-color of this animal was a rich tawny, with an orange tinge; but the spots, instead of being of the usual rosette-like form, were nearly all small and solid, like those on the head of an ordinary leopard; while from the top of the head to near the root of the tail the spots became almost confluent, producing the appearance of a broad streak of black running down the back. A second skin had the black area embracing nearly the whole of the back and flanks, without showing any trace of the spots. These dark-colored South African leopards differ from the black leopards of the northern and eastern parts of Africa and Asia in that while in the latter the rosette-like spots are always retained and clearly visible, in the former the rosettes are lost…
—Lydekker, R. (1910), Harmsworth Natural History
Most other color morphs of leopards are known only from museum specimens or paintings. In May 1936, the British Natural History Museum displayed mounted skin of a strange Somali leopard. It was thoroughly decorated with a complex pattern of blotches, swirling stripes, curls and fine-line traceries. This is different from a spotted leopard, but similar to a “king cheetah”, hence the modern cryptozoology term “king leopard”. Six pseudo-melanistic leopards were recorded in the Albany and Grahamstown districts of South Africa between 1885 and 1934. This suggested a mutation in the local leopard population. Other king leopards have been recorded from Malabar in southwestern India. It is believed that the shooting for trophies may have caused the loss of these populations.