You only think you know the black panther

February 16, 2018, 11:25 a.m.
A black panther sitting among green bushes
Photo: Valeri Potapova/Shutterstock

The elegant black panther is an iconic animal. So much so that it has been immortalized through art, folklore, novels, political activism, comic books, professional sports teams and of course movies. There's just one little thing you should probably know about the black panther.

It's not its own individual species.

That's right, the black panther is actually an umbrella term used to describe any big cat species that exhibits what's called a melanistic color variation that results in black fur. The name is mostly applied to the jaguar (Panthera onca) and the leopard (Panthera pardus). In the case of jaguars, the black coat is caused by a dominant allele, while it's a recessive allele leopards can thank for their black fur.

This black fur doesn't hide those big cats' spots, however. If you can't see the spots along the panther's limbs or in the space between its eyes and ears in the photo above, here's a clear view of a black jaguar's spots.

A black jaguar with visible spots You can clearly see this jaguar's spots on its head and along its flank, despite its black fur. (Photo: Ron Singer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons)

"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," Patrick Thomas, general curator of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Bronx Zoo, told National Geographic.

Their black coats don't make these big cats more prone to hunting at night. Indeed, their black fur is actually something of a disadvantage in the jungle, according to Thomas.

"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."

Still, there's no denying that black panthers are compelling and charismatic cats.

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