In this article:
- Melanism is the opposite of albinism and it causes animals to have an abnormal amount of the dark-colored pigment melanin.
- Black panthers are not their own species, but rather leopards or jaguars with melanism.
- Black panthers have better hunting abilities than normal leopards and jaguars, but they lack certain white markings that are important for visual communication with other members of their species.
- Melanism is present in many other species of animals, humans excluded.
We’ve all heard of the black panther. Perhaps you saw the 2018 film Black Panther starring the late Chadwick Boseman. Maybe you’re familiar with the Black Panther Party, the Black activist group started by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Then you have Bagheera from The Jungle Book. There’s also the mascot for the Carolina Panthers football team.
One way or another, you’ve seen a black panther somewhere in mainstream culture. But, do you really know what a black panther is? Did you know that a black panther is actually just a jaguar (if it lives in the Americas) or a leopard (if it lives in Africa or Asia)?
That’s right. A black panther is actually just the result of a genetic anomaly in a leopard or jaguar that causes them to have darker pigmentation.
This genetic anomaly is known as melanism. But, aside from just making them look super cool and intimidating, scientists have long believed that this black pigmentation actually has some advantages for survival.
Other researchers have begun to suggest that melanistic leopards and jaguars may actually be at a disadvantage compared to normally pigmented members of these species. So, the debate is on.
Who is better adapted? Black panthers or normal jaguars and leopards?
What Is Melanism?
Melanism is the increased development of melanin, a dark-colored pigment in the skin or hair, that occurs in animals as a result of a certain gene being expressed partially or fully. Melanism is pretty much the exact opposite of albinism, in which an albino animal will develop far less melanin than normal.
Occasionally, having a darker pigment is a type of adaptation that makes animals more suitable for their environments and is conferred by a dominant allele. In this case, the condition is known as adaptive melanism. Black panthers may or may not be an example of adaptive melanism, but we’ll get into that later.
What Are Black Panthers?
Black panthers are not their own species, but rather a name used to refer to leopards and jaguars with melanism. The name comes from the genus name Panthera, which includes tigers, lions, jaguars, leopards, and snow leopards.
Unlike the other members of the genus, melanism only occurs in leopards and jaguars. While it’s found in other wild cats such as jaguarundis, servals, and bobcats, these cats do not belong to the genus Panthera so they aren’t considered black panthers.
Some black panthers have more melanin than others. Some appear completely black, causing them to look like they don’t have any spots. On the other hand, some have clearly visible spots but darker pigmentation than other leopards and jaguars.
In leopards, melanism is caused by a recessive allele whereas, in jaguars, it is caused by a dominant allele.
Due to the fact that melanism is more common in jaguars and leopards than pretty much any other animal (with an estimated likelihood of around 5% to 11%), it would seem that black panthers are an example of adaptive melanism. However, some researchers have discovered that that adaption may come at a cost.
Is It Better to Be a Black Panther?
When we talk about adaptations in animals, we tend to only focus on the benefits of the adaptation while ignoring what the animal may be sacrificing. While a certain characteristic may be better in some cases, it may be worse in others. Such is the case with the coat of a black panther.
There are certainly some advantages to having black fur, especially when you’re a hunter. The darker pigment of black panthers allows them to be stealthier and hide in the shadows while stalking their prey. And, considering that all types of jaguars and leopards are partially active at night, being black in color makes them almost invisible when night falls.
Unsurprisingly, black panthers tend to hunt more at night than their normal counterparts. First of all, it makes sense to hunt when you have the greatest advantage. Secondly, black panthers are more susceptible to overheating during the day due to their darker coat.
There are also claims that black panthers tend to be more aggressive than other leopards or jaguars, but that’s difficult to verify. Additionally, studies have suggested that black panthers may also be more resistant to disease.
So, at first glance, it would appear that being a black panther would be better. However, ecologist Mauricio Graipel and his colleagues revealed in a study that there may be one serious drawback to being having an all-black coat.
The black panther is missing one specific feature that serves a very important purpose for its non-melanistic counterparts: large white spots of fur behind its ears. Graipel’s studies of wild cats have suggested that these white markings may play a vital role in intraspecies visual communication.
In all species of cats, the position of the ears is very important to visual communication. It may be a way of silently warning off another cat that is following it. Mothers also send warning signals to their kittens using their ear positions.
Thus, these white markings are probably advantageous for conveying these messages in low light.
However, this downside may not actually be a downside if the cat in question is mostly active during the day when there’s plenty of light to see their ears. Supporting this theory is the fact that jaguarundis (the species with the highest rate of melanism among all cats at nearly 80%) are most active during the day. So, while black panthers are better hunters at night, it may be the ones that are most active during the day that have it the best.
So, the answer to whether it’s better to be a black panther or a normal leopard or jaguar is a complicated one when you factor in overheating, hunting ability, and the effectiveness of visual communication.
Melanism in Other Animals
Cats are not the only animals in which melanism is found. It’s also found in chickens, for example, being particularly common in the Silkie breed. A melanistic flamingo was observed in Cyprus in 2015 and made international headlines.
Melanism has also been observed in red foxes, Eastern grey squirrels, king penguins, common European vipers, rat snakes, and several other species. But melanism does not occur in human beings.
My personal favorite case of melanism, however, is the melanistic guinea pig, which may or may not be the cutest creature to ever walk the Earth. You’re welcome.