I’m a wildlife biologist (since 2003) who has been part of a world-wide camera trapping project for the past six years with a strong focus in North Carolina. One of the most common questions, or rather statements, I get is about spotting black panthers in the eastern United States. But what exactly is a black panther? Do black panthers really exist? And is it possible that they are in the United States?
There’s a lot of misinformation about these animals, so let’s clear up some misconceptions.
What Exactly is the Animal Called a “Black Panther?”
Bagheera, the black panther from the Jungle Book, is one of my favorite Disney characters, but the term black panther is not quite right. The black panther is not a separate animal species. Rather, “black panther” is a blanket term for any member of the big cats with a black coat.
The black coat is caused by a gene that produces a dark pigment. Mammals with this mutation are known as melanistic and this can occur amongst many different species outside of the big cats.
Black panthers technically could refer to any species of big cat that is black, but by and large, almost exclusively (if not completely), black jaguars (Panthera onca) or leopards (Panther pardus). When you look at these black big cats up close and with enough bright light, you’ll see spots within the dark fur.
Black leopards seem to be more common than black jaguars, at least in the regions that we have camera traps. In our eMammal camera trap database, we have yet to have a photo of black jaguars, but have captured quite a few of black leopards in Thailand. This is especially interesting considering that melanism is recessive in leopards, but dominant in jaguars.
Where Do Black Panthers Live?
As black panthers are really melanistic leopards or jaguars, they live where these two different species live. Jaguars are found in South and central America, whereas leopards are found throughout Africa and Asia.
What is a Panther?
The panther is a real species and it is used to describe mountain lions, which live in North America (although I rarely hear people refer to them as panthers). The most common words used for this species (Puma concolor) are puma, cougar, or mountain lion, and there are many others that might be locally common.
Where Do Panthers Live?
As mentioned above, panthers (AKA mountain lions AKA pumas AKA cougars) live in North America, but only in the west. When I was doing my Ph.D. in Missouri up until 2012, they started moving into Missouri, but there was still not a confirmed breeding population at the time.
Contrary to what many people think, there are not eastern panthers. You frequently hear people talk about seeing an eastern cougar, but there is no scientific evidence of a breeding population. Listen to this podcast episode where I explain the details from different camera trap studies across the eastern US:
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However, you do hear people use the word panther when referring to the Florida panther. The Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) is always called a panther, but in actuality, it is a subspecies of mountain lion. In fact, when Florida panthers were suffering from inbreeding due to few individuals, the government brought in mountain lions from Texas to help restore their genetic diversity.
Are There Black Panthers in the United States?
To my knowledge, all black panthers are black leopards or black jaguars. There are pseudo-melanistic tigers, but they still have stripes and you can see white in between the stripes, so they don’t look solid black like melanistic jaguars or leopards.
Given that jaguars, leopards, and tigers do not live in the United States (at least in the wild, they are privately owned in zoos), there are not black panthers of theses species in the US.
That leaves cougars and snow leopards. I could not find any evidence of melanistic snow leopards.
However, are there black cougars? As mentioned above, cougars live in the United States and it makes sense that there could be a melanistic cougar.
Over the course of history though, there has never been a confirmed or documented case of a black mountain lion in the United States. This includes Florida panthers, meaning there are no Florida black panthers either. Mountain lions have been hunted (and still are) for a very long time, so if there was one, there would likely be at least one specimen in museums. Over the course of history, since Europeans arrived, there has never been a confirmed or documented case.
Bobcats, a much smaller species of wild cat in the United States can be melanistic too, but this is extremely rare. There have only 12 reported sightings across all of North America and because these cats are so much smaller, they would look more like a house cat than a black panther.
But My Friend Swears They Saw a Black Panther…
Without any documented evidence (e.g. photos, kills from hunts), it makes it extremely unlikely that your friend saw a melanistic mountain lion. Mountain lions are reported all of the time to state game agencies and to the Cougar Network, the most exhaustive database of confirmed cougar sightings. Many of these photos of reported mountain lions (not melanistic ones), when reviewed by experts, turn out to be bobcats, deer, and dogs. Dr. Michelle LaRue even does a fun game on Twitter called #cougarornot where she posts a photo and has Twitter guess if it is a cougar (or not).
In fact, there are not even mountain lions in the eastern United States (outside of Florida panthers). There was a male that dispersed from the west to Connecticut, but this was not a mountain lion living in the east. In other words, there are no populations with breeding females. We’ve run thousands of camera traps from Florida to New York with no photographic evidence.
If you truly believe you saw something that resembles a black panther or even a mountain lion in the eastern US, the best way to document it is through the use of camera traps. Because we cannot trust people’s species identifications on sight alone, a photo is the only way to confirm presence. Camera traps are also a fantastic way to connect to nature, so even if you are not trying to photograph a black panther or mountain lion, you will capture many other amazing animals
All camera trap photos were taken by the eMammal project.
Stephanie Schuttler is a wildlife biologist with 17 years of experience in mammal ecology and conservation, education, and outreach. Read her inspirational story, “My Unexpected Journey Into Science” to find out how she went from the daughter of a jeweler to a Ph.D. in wildlife biology. Feel free to contact Stephanie here.