The idea that black panthers are a unique species is a common misconception. The term "panther" actually refers to several species of large cat, and the dark colouration giving black panthers their name is actually due to a genetic mutation. Black panthers are actually jaguars or leopards.
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The term "panther" comes from the genus name "Panthera" and has come to be a generic term for large wildcats, according to IndianTiger.org. Panthera pardus (leopards) and Panthera onca (jaguar) are two species referred to as black panthers when having black fur rather than the typical golden fur. "Panther," like "mountain lion," is an alternate name for the cougar (Puma concolor), according to Cougarfund.org.
Black panthers have melanistic colouration, meaning they have higher levels of melanin in their skin and fur than typical cats of their species, according to Big Cats Online. Melanistic colouration is due to a gene mutation, according to ItsNature.org. Black jaguars get their colouration from a dominant gene, while black leopards get their colouration from a recessive gene.
Black panthers are not entirely black. They still have the markings typically found in members of their species; however, the darker fur makes the spots (called rosettes) less apparent, according to ItsNature.org.
Although jaguars once occupied southern North America, they are now limited to parts of Central and South America, according to National Geographic. Jaguars are excellent swimmers that prey on both aquatic and land animals (such as deer), and can usually kill their prey with a swift leap and one bite, according to the web site.
Leopards are big cats found in sub-Saharan Africa, northeast Africa, Central Asia, India and China, according to National Geographic. Leopards spend a great deal of time in trees and are known to drag their prey into the branches to protect it from scavengers. They also use their climbing and pouncing skills for an advantage while hunting, according to National Geographic.
Leopards and Jaguars are solitary, nocturnal animals that hunt almost exclusively at night, according to ItsNature.org. In this aspect, melanistic colouration is an advantage.
Rumours of North American black panthers, or melanistic cougars, have circulated for years, according to Cryptozoology.com. However, no adequate documentation of wild melanistic cougars (or other large North American cat species) exists, and a North American black panther has never been born into captivity.
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