Black panthers are the most controversial felid topic in North America.
As noted in part 1 of this series there is no such species recognized as “black panther” anywhere on the planet much less in the United States of America.
The “black panthers” seen in zoos, wildlife demonstrations and in media are melanistic (black) leopards and jaguars. They are anomalies within these species and not a separate one altogether.
So, what are people seeing? There is no doubt there are many, many reports.
The late Don Zaidle who wrote extensively on man-eating animals was doing some research on wild cats and suggested 16 years ago I look at the jaguarundi as a possible “black panther” suspect. Shortly after I actually saw one of these cats north of their accepted range and it sort of clicked that people could be seeing them and labeling “black panther”.
After all, virtually no one outside of hardcore wildlife fans even knows that jaguarundi exists so “black panther” is an easy tag to give them.
I started writing on jaguarundis being a possible “black panther” back in 2002 with an article at The Anomalist.
Jaguarundis are known to range from South America to the Mexican borders of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. The key word here is “known”. That means scientists have observed or captured the species within those areas, however they are reported to range much farther north in the Lone Star State and perhaps elsewhere.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) officials solicited information from the public and received numerous reports of the species in the 1960s, including several sightings from central and east Texas. Additional sightings were reported from as far away as Florida, Oklahoma, and Colorado
In a study conducted in 1984, TPWD biologists noted a string of unconfirmed jaguarundi sightings in Brazoria County, which corners the hugely populated areas of both Houston and Galveston.
Brazoria County is more than 200 miles north of the counties of Cameron and Willacy, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has designated as being the only confirmed areas of Texas that houses jaguarundis.
I saw mine in Jefferson County which is 300 miles north of their accepted range and have fielded multiple reliable reports from the region-even one from a wildlife biologist.
There are some black panther reports howefer that do not fit the mold of the jaguarundi.
The aforementioned jaguar is a potential candidate because they exhibit melanism and once ranged into Louisiana to the east and California to the west with some accounts as far north as Oklahoma before being considered eliminated in the United States.
Jaguars in the last 15 years have been proven to move in and out of New Mexico and Arizona although the last known American-traveling jaguar was killed in Mexico.
I have gathered several alleged jaguar sightings from Texas along the Rio Grande River region and into the Trans-Pecos. These sightings are under investigation but unlike New Mexico and Arizona there are no official trail camera programs attempting to study any possible movements into Texas. The Trans-Pecos is a huge area and is vastly uninhabited so it is possible there are jaguars touching Texas soil no one has seen.
In terms of anecdotal evidence, I now have three specific reports that after interviewing eyewitnesses lead me to believe they possibly could have seen a jaguar. Two are in Texas and on is in Louisiana. Two of those are standard colored jaguars and the other is melanistic.
It is unlikely that all black panther reports are melanistic jaguars. In fact none of the alleged panther videos or photos I have seen even look like jaguars so that eliminates them as the top suspect in these cases although the jury is out on a few accounts I have investigated.
Another possible source is melanistic bobcats. Bobcats have been documented to produce melanistic offspring and I know for a fact many people cannot judge their size.
In the last 12 months I have examined more than a dozen game camera photos sent by readers who thought they had captured a cougar but had really gotten a large bobcat or in a couple of cases one with an extra long tail.
That’s no slight on the people sending the photos. Unless you deal with these animals it can be hard to gauge.
If people are thinking standard bobcats are cougars could some of the melanistic ones be called black panthers?
It is possible.
I believe the answer to this mystery does not fall with a solitary species but several and I believe the bulk of reports come from a source I will write on the third installment that has some pretty compelling evidence.
Chester Moore, Jr.