Do Black Panthers Have Natural Advantages In The Animal Kingdom?

Black cats have always fascinated humans. From the Egyptians through to modern-day Marvel fans, they have long been associated with supernatural abilities. But is there any truth to these man-made associations?

Out of the 35-plus species of wildcat in the world, at least 14 have been known to display melanistic variations, which is caused by a genetic mutation that increases the amount of dark pigment (melanins) in the fur. The term black panther is used colloquially to refer to a variety of species in which black individuals are found. Melanistic individuals have been identified in lynxes, jaguars, leopards, servals, jaguarundis and a variety of other big cat species.  

A black serval:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no scientific evidence that melanistic cats have supernatural abilities. However, scientists believe that the persistence of melanism in wild felines suggest it offers some advantages in the natural world, such as temperature regulation and additional camouflage. Although the science behind this is surprising.

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There are a variety of factors at play, including environment and geography. Melanistic leopards are extremely uncommon in the open plains of the African savanna. However, in Malaysia, leopards in the dense forests are mainly active during the day and display higher rates of melanism in the population. You might assume that black coats are ideal for big cats that hunt at night. However, scientists have found that predominantly night-dwelling species have the lowest frequencies of melanism. Part of this can be explained by genetics, with things called alleles, which are different varieties of genes. But that’s not what we’re concentrating on right now.

A black leopard:

It’s thought that, in part, melanistic frequency varies so much across species because certain wildcats use white marks on the backs of their ears and tails to communicate with other individuals, such as the tigrina in southern Brazil. Melanistic cats don’t possess those markings. Considering white is most conspicuous at night, this suggests that those species which are most active at night, are disadvantaged by melanism. The evidence supports this theory: the South American jaguarundi, which is largely active in the daytime, have the highest frequency of melanism out of all wildcat species, with 80% of the population being melanistic. 

Although humans may be entranced by the sheer beauty of black varieties of wildcats, it appears that they are not necessarily at an advantage, supernatural or otherwise. Counter-intuitively, it is the species that hunt during the days that most benefit from having those stunning black coats.