The Black Panther

A black jaguar (Panthera onca) crouches in a pool of water in Brazil. Black jaguars are also called black panthers, which is an umbrella term for any big cat with a black coat. Photograph by Frans Lanting, National Geographic Creative.

When Josie from Tucson, Arizona, asked us why National Geographic’s Big Cat Week in December didn’t feature black panthers, we thought we’d dispel a few myths about these fascinating felines for Weird Animal Question of the Week.  

First things first: A “black panther” is not its own species—it’s an umbrella term that refers to any big cat with a black coat.

The condition is caused by the agouti gene, which regulates the distribution of black pigment within the hair shaft, according to the University of California, Davis. It’s most well known in leopards, which live in Asia and Africa, and jaguars, inhabitants of South America.

According to Big Cat Rescue, the coloring comes from a surplus of melanin, the same pigment responsible for suntans, and an animal with the condition is known as “melanistic.”

Also, just because black panthers are dark in color doesn’t mean they don’t have spots—they’re just harder to see.

“When their coat catches the sunlight in a certain way, you can see their spots very distinctly; at a bit of a distance, or if there is not direct sunlight on them, they look just like a solid black animal,” said Patrick Thomas, general curator of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo, which is home to two black leopards.

“Black leopards are more common in Asia than in Africa,” Thomas said, “but I wouldn’t say they were common anywhere.”

Spotted Is the New Black?

Wouldn’t a black coat be an advantage for nighttime hunters, and therefore more common? Actually, no, Thomas said.

“It’s actually easier for other species to spot a solidly patterned animal versus one whose markings are broken up,” he said.

“So a tiger with its stripes or a leopard, jaguar, or cheetah with its spots are more difficult to see in dappled vegetation than a purely solidly colored animal would be.”

Plus, Thomas says it’s a misconception that big cats are strictly night owls. 

“They’re very opportunistic,” he said. “If there’s an opportunity to hunt during the day and they’re hungry, they will.”

Also, if “you’re hunting when it’s bright, there’s an advantage to having your body broken up by a patterned coat rather than a solid coat.”

Other wild cat species can have melanism—a 2012 study in PLOS ONE notes that it’s been documented in 13 so far—but Thomas added he knows of no cases of lions or tigers with the condition.