Reprinted from my January 24, 2010 column in the Morgantown Dominion Post
Black panthers in West Virginia. Just the thought of it makes the tips of your fingers tingle, doesn’t it? And people have seen them, they really have.
I remember a sunny late-winter day, sitting in my office at West Virginia University when the phone rang. A citizen from an adjacent county called to see if we wanted information on a black panther that he’d seen run into a cave. His descriptions sounded good . . . black, cat-like in appearance, about 125 pounds, long black tail. What else could it be? When in doubt and busy, do the logical thing and send a graduate student to check it out.
I’d have gone myself, but I knew we didn’t have black panthers in West Virginia, or anywhere else in the wild in the United States. But the graduate student wanted to go, so off he went. I instructed him to get photos, or a plaster cast of an imprint of the foot pad in the mud. Neither ever came to fruition.
Rumors of big black wild cats surface on a regular basis, but the truth is that there is no such creature as a black panther in West Virginia. What prompted me to write this story was the sighting and capture of a jaguar in Arizona last fall. I’ll make the jaguar/black panther connection in a minute, but first let’s look at the jaguar. The jaguar is the third biggest wild cat in the world, behind the tiger and lion. They resemble leopards, and although their range is South and Central American, they were formerly found in the Southwest, from Louisiana through Texas and New Mexico, to Arizona.
Today they are found in Mexico through Central America and South to Argentina. We haven’t had many jaguars in this country since the early 19th century, but there have been occasional sightings. They are protected in the United States and have been since 1969. In 1996 a three-year-old male was photographed and videoed in a tree in southern Arizona, chased there by mountain lion hunters and their hounds.
Then in 2001 a group studying jaguars got a photo of a jaguar on a trail camera in Arizona. It was the same one that had been treed in 1996 (you can identify individuals by the pattern of their spots). He was subsequently seen or photographed 90 times between 2004 and 2007, and his home range was believed to be over 525 square miles.
In February of 2009 a very old jaguar was captured and radio-collared by researchers in southern Arizona. It turned out that this was the same jaguar that was originally treed and videoed in 1996. Being three-years-old in 1996, we know that this cat was 15 years old when collared. What are the chances of capturing that original animal? The sad outcome was that he was again captured and euthanized in March of 2009 because he was ill, and found to have a kidney failure. Some suspected that the original February capture was the cause of his illness and an official investigation was done on that incident. The conclusion was that he was just old and sick.
Now that we’ve covered a bit of jaguar history in the United States, what does this have to do with black panthers? The answer is simple. About six percent of jaguars in South America are black. Melanism in jaguars is caused by a dominant gene, making those jaguars black, and these are called "black panthers." They are not a separate species. They are simply black jaguars. Even though jaguars are rare in the United States, I guess you could see one in Arizona, though noone has ever done so.
There are melanistic leopards in captivity and they are relative common. In fact, captive black leopards are more common than captive jaguars.
One might think that our mountain lion may have a melanistic phase and thus be a "black panther." The problem here is that there is no proven black phase for mountain lions. In other words, none have been bred, none ever shot in the wild, none ever photographed in the wild. Most experts say that black mountain lions do not exist. But reports exist from North Carolina, West Virginia and numerous states all the way to Kansas. Such reports come often enough that those seeing them believe they are looking at a separate species . . . the black panther.
But the truth is that the only real "black panther" in the wild is a melanistic jaguar, and try as we might, they just don’t exist in West Virginia.