Fairly often I'll see a social media post, a news article, or a friend will send me a story about someone spotting a very rare "black panther" somewhere in the southern United States or in my home state of Alabama. Social media frenzies often erupt around these sightings with neighborly warnings such as "Keep the kids and pets indoors!" causing fear, panic and lots of gossip. Wildlife officials almost always completely dismiss these sightings - but I have found many of the witnesses to be very credible and sincere - and the sightings persist year after year. So, what exactly are all these people seeing?
Do Black Panthers Even Exist?
This is a complicated answer. What people in North America, including early settlers, often referred to as a "panther" is the same animal as a mountain lion, puma, cougar, or mountain cat. It's the same "big cat" - it just has many different names. The problem with the description of a "black panther" is that these big cats: mountain lions, pumas, cougars, etc. do not have the genetic ability to be born with black fur and they are not in the cat genus "Panthera" from which the name "panther" is derived. They do not possess the gene needed be "melanistic" or have black fur. There has never been an actual "black panther" that was also a mountain lion ever known to exist in history. So what big cats do come in black? What we mistakenly call a "black panther" is usually another species of big cat - but it's definitely not a black mountain lion.
Black Leopard and Black Jaguar
These two species can most definitely come in black or be "melanistic" big cats. Most of the photos seen online of a beautiful big solid black cat - although often labeled as a "black panther" - are actually a black jaguar or black leopard. The black jaguar is a little larger than the black leopard - and the black leopard usually still has some spots faintly visible on it's fur. So can we assume that people who see a black panther in the southern U.S. are actually seeing a black leopard or jaguar? Unless that big black cat they spotted has escaped from captivity somewhere, that's almost impossible, too. That's because leopards have never been native to the U.S. - they are from Asia, India and Africa. Jaguars, however, are from South America and have been seen as far north as Mexico and just over the Arizona state line - so, could it be that a black jaguar has found it's way farther north? Let's look at that.
Black Jaguar = Black Panther
Referring to a black jaguar as a black panther is a correct description. The jaguar is classified in the cat genus "Panthera" and they do have the genetic ability to be solid black. Jaguars have been photographed and documented in Panama, Brazil, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Mexico, and in the past decade in the extreme southwest United States crossing over the Mexico border into Arizona. Spotted jaguars are the most common and the jaguars seen in the southwestern U.S. have all been spotted. The melanistic or black jaguar is extrmely rare. Only 5% of jaguars are born solid black - and all either in captivity or discovered in the wild deep in South America. Jaguars, either spotted or solid black, have never been documented in the southern United States east of the Mississippi. Once again, this basically knocks out the odds that a black jaguar is the animal responsible for so many sightings in Alabama and the southeast U.S. - unless it's one that has escaped captivity. So, also once again, I ask: exactly what are all these people spotting that they swear is a black panther? Could it be something else?
Conservation authorities have said for decades that sightings of black Panthers are simply cases of mistaken identity. They have said that bobcats and domestic cats are most often the culprits - especially when photos are taken that have nothing in the background to estimate the size of the cat in the photo. A few melanistic or solid black bobcats have been spotted and killed in Florida and Texas - so, melanistic bobcats could account for some sightings. Feral cats have been recorded weighing up to 35 pounds - that could also account for many sightings. Conservationists have also blamed proported signtings on black dogs and even black bears. Sure, I can see where a few people may have mistaken one of these as a black panther - but not all. Multiple sightings of a black panther have been made by experienced outdoorsmen and other extremely credible witnesses. To pass them all off as mistaken identity is insulting to our good old boy heritage down here! After all, we know our critters in the south!
Texas Big Cats and Florida Panthers
Texas is home to several species of big cats that many people have speculated could account for black panther sightings and Florida has their own version, too. The florida panther is one - however, it's in the cougar family which is not capable of being solid black - so we can rule it out completely as being mistaken for a black panther. Like the mountain lion, it does not have the genes to be melanistic or solid black. Back to Texas: there is the Ocelot, the Margay and the Jaguarundi - all species of wild cats. The Margay has not been spotted in Texas since the turn of the century and has almost definitely been expatriated from the southern U.S. - cross that one off from the list of possibilities. The Ocelot is a medium sized cat and very distinctly spotted - they look very much like a small spotted leopard but there is no record of a melanistic ocelot - so, cross that one off, too. Lastly, there is the Jaguarundi. This is one big cat that could possibly be mistaken for a black panther - and may account for sightings in Texas all the way to through the coastal lands to Florida. The Jagarundi deserves a closer inspection.
I have to admit that prior to researching this topic, I had never heard of a Jaguarundi. The Jaguarundi is a little larger than a bobcat, has a very long tail like a jaguar, and it's fur varies from deep reddish brown to deep gray - almost black. It's very muscular and compact which gives it the illusion of being a much larger cat when seen from a distance. Does this sound like a great candidate for mistaken identity with a black panther? Matthew Monk, author at Texas Hill Country thinks so and has written a great article about his research on the topic (see it here). Matthew says:
As the locals of Delhi, Texas, reported in the mid-1980s, several jaguarundis were relocated to Bastrop and Caldwell counties from a large game ranch in south Texas. Apparently, the cats were disruptive to the large white-tail deer and quail that the game ranch contained. Since the jaguarundis were a protected species, they were trapped and brought north and released. Over the years many sightings have been reported of “black panthers” across the two counties. According to a few Delhi residents, these people aren’t seeing “panthers,” but rather, jaguarundis."
Joe Rogan says he had a sighting on a trail cam on his ranch in Texas and he mentions the Jaguarundi in his show briefly (see the clip here). There were also several sightings of Jaguarundi in the Mobile, Alabama area in the 1980s and a small Jaguarundi population was said to have been transplanted to Florida in the 1940s. Whether that population survived is not verified - but many say the sightings in Mobile were Jaguarundi that had migrated from the transplanted colony in Florida.
Escaped From Captivity
This is always a possibilty - that black panther sightings are a black leopard or jaguar that has escaped from captivity. The International Fund for Animal Welfare, or IFAW, monitors big cats in captivity around the world. The IFAW estimates that there are more Tigers in private ownership than there are in the wild. In the U.S. it is estimated that over 10,000 big cats of various species are kept by private owners. Over 10,000! Y'all - that's a lot of big cats that could get loose - and owners are not likely to make the public aware due to laws and regulations. I would venture to say that big cats who have escaped account for some of the sightings that we hear about. I couldn't find any estimates of the number of actual Black Panthers in captivity - but I'm sure they are out there. There is a huge black market for big cats, sadly - and I'm sure the black panther is worth a lot of money and highly sought after.
Crossbreeding Big Cats
One possibility that could account for some of the sightings of big black cats or black panthers in the wild that I have wondered about personally could be from crossbreeding or creating hybrids. Surprisingly, many big cats are able to crossbreed. A black jaguar called Diablo has been crossed with a lioness at Bear Creek Sanctuary, Barrie, Canada, resulting in a charcoal coloured “black jaglion." A "pumapard" is the hybrid of a cougar and leopard. Multiple other big cats have been crossbred in captivity. Could it be that there is some unknown hybrid wandering the wilds of the southeast? Could some exotic big cat have escaped and bred with local bobcats or mountain lions and created a yet unknown hybrid? Mountain lion sightings have been confirmed in several southern states, after all. They have not been "officially" confirmed in Alabama - but that's just a matter of time with sightings confirmed in neighboring states close to the Alabama state line. There could definitely be some hybrids out there yet to be discovered.
Real or cryptid?
With all the sightings of "Black Panthers" in Alabama and the southeast, wildlife officials repeatedly classify such sightings in the same genre as bigfoot or cryptids: an animal that is rumored to exist but not recognized by science or wildlife experts. I wrote an article recently: Alabama Cryptids, Monsters, and Mystery Animals where I included black panther sightings and gave links to a couple of Alabama sightings (read the article here). I'm not completely persuaded that black panther sigtings fall under the cryptid category - but they are definitely a mystery animal that continues to be spotted. I also found a very recent article by Larry Woody of Main Street Nashville. In the article, a local couple, Rusty and Linda Mcclanahan spotted what they described as a black panther extrmely close to their deer blind while hunting in Cumberland County, Tennessee.
“It was 12 feet away,” says Rusty, a veteran outdoorsman who has hunted in 11 states and seen numerous panthers, also known as mountain lions. “It came walking down a trail, stopped, looked at us, then went loping off. It never made a sound."
The article goes on to say that Rusty described the animal as "about six feet long nose to tail, the tip of the tail curled up, solid black fur." He also said that the land owner confirmed that be had seen the black cat, as well. (Read the full account here). So, that's three credible witnesses sighting what they described as a black panther in the same area. Black Jaguar perhaps?
As surely as there are credible sightings, there are also a LOT of hoaxes out there - especially on the internet and social media. One supposed sighting that went viral in North Carolina turned out to be a joke among friends that got out of hand. WMAZ covered the story (see it here). Always be aware that most of what appears online is a hoax, sadly. A reverse image search usually reveals that the trail cam photo or other photo that some local swears was taken on his property or a buddy's property of a black panther is from another source such as a game reserve or zoo. Someone started a rumor recently that a black panther was spotted in Tennessee and, of course, the photo spread like wildfire on social media. The photo used in the post on Facebook was found to be taken of a melanistic leopard in Africa. Fake news 100%.
I have covered several possibilities of what these sightings of a black panther could be:
- A black jaguar or black leopard escaped from captivity
- A bobcat, feral or domestic cat or other animal mistakenly identified as a black panther
- A Jaguarundi
- An unknown hybrid
- A hoax
I think the truth of each sighting could be any of the above possibilities with each case being unique - but I also still believe that many of the witnesses have seen something that looks like a black panther and are credible. Check out this video from Mississipp, for example (watch here). We may never know what they actually spotted. I hope one day more of these mysteries can be solved. In the meantime, keep your cell phones handy, put up your trail cams- and if any of you have a sighting, please send me a copy of the photo! If you have any other interesting topics or stories that center around Alabama or the Shoals area, I may include them in a future article! Send them to me at: April.firstname.lastname@example.org
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