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Monday, June 23, 2014

Bagheera and Company

"A black shadow dropped down into the circle.  It was Bagheera the Black Panther, inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk.  Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody cared to cross his path, for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the the wounded elephant.  But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than down."

- Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Books

Over the years, I've gotten the chance to work with all eight of the big cat species - some as a keeper, some as a volunteer.  Of the eight, my favorite has always been the jaguar.  The largest cat of the Americas has always struck me as the most perfect.  It compromises between the muscular bulk of a lion or tiger with the lithe grace of a leopard or puma.  It doesn't hurt, of course, that the coat is exceptionally beautiful.

That's for the spotted ones, of course.  There are also the black ones to consider.

When I worked with jaguars (and leopards before them), the question I got most from zoo guests was "Where are the panthers at?"  Never being one to miss a teaching moment, I would reply "The jaguars (or leopards) are this way...", to which they would always reply, "No, we want to see the panther..."  Sigh.

Stupid memes like this, which I found circulating around today, don't help.

No.  No, no, no.  Jaguars are endangered.  Leopards are endangered.  The black panther is not a species.  It's probably the world's most famous species which isn't a species.  So what is it?

When people talk about panthers, they usually mean one of three things.  They might be referring to Puma concolor, the cat also known as the mountain lion, cougar, puma, and a few dozen other things.  The highly endangered Florida subspecies, for example, is usually known as the Florida panther (but is never black).  Usually when people talk about panthers, though, they mean either a black leopard or a black jaguar.

Blackness in leopards and jaguars is the result of a color mutation called melanism.  Put simply, melanism (which has been documented in about a dozen species of felid) is the condition in which the fur, feathers, or skin of an animal has an exceptional amount of the pigment melanin, which makes the animal appear black.  

Another color mutation in wild cats which is equally well known is amelanism (sometimes confused with albinism), which leads to the mutant white tigers.  Unlike amelanistic white tigers, however, melanistic black leopards and jaguars are actually well documented in the wild, as their mutation does not impede their ability to survive.  In some study sites in tropical Asia, black leopards outnumber normal spotted ones, and in at least one, only black leopards were documented.  It makes sense.  A white tiger trying to hide in a tropical rainforest is going to stand out pretty badly, making it hard to catch prey unawares.  In contrast, an inky black leopard or jaguar prowling in the shadows of the forest floor is much harder to spot, pun unintended.

Sigh... this is not how it works...

In case the above picture put the question into your mind, what happens if a black jaguar and a spotted jaguar mate and produce cubs?  Some may be spotted, others may be black (you don't get a blended version, a litter of darker/spotty ones).  If the light does hit a black jaguar at just the right angle, however, you can still see spots.  See, Kipling isn't a completely inaccurate student of natural history.

Black panthers have been ingrained into our popular conception of animal life.  They are the mascot of an NFL team from Carolina, the name of a Marvel Comics superhero, and, perhaps most famously, the name of a political activist group from the 1960s and 1970s.  What they are not, however, is their own species.

So on that note...

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