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By Koaw March - 2018

Melanism in Panthera onca by Eduardo Estrada Wildlife & Conservation Photography

Melanism in Panthera onca by Eduardo Estrada Wildlife & Conservation Photography

Most people don’t know what a black panther is! Let’s clear that up today.

‘Panther’ is a name given to the genus panthera which includes lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars (this includes snow leopards.)

Thus ‘black panther’ is a multi-species term referring to any of these big cats that express melanism, where the term 'black panther' is usually reserved for the various subspecies of jaguars and leopards.

And melanism is just when the dark pigment melanin is expressed in abundance. We have melanin in our skin—and it varies from person to person—and when we are exposed to the ultra violet radiation of our sun, more melanin is expressed after a short period of time—we call that tanning. Just think of melanism as the opposite of albinism—or the absence of pigments.

These big cats with melanism still have their spots and markings—but they are just harder to see.

So a black panther could be referring to many different species—like within five subspecies of leopard—or in subspecies of jaguar within the Americas.

Since the Black Panther comic book hero is from somewhere in east Africa, his name most likely is derived from the African leopard subspecies. Jaguars are in the Americas and leopards are in Africa and Asia.


Main References:

Nat Geo Overview - https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/01/150116-black-animals-cats-leopards-science-jaguars-genetics/

Macroecological modeling of melanism in leopards - http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0170378

Kawanishi, K.; Sunquist, M.E.; Eizirik, E.; Lynam, A.J.; Ngoprasert, D.; Shahruddin, W.N.W.; Rayan, D.M.; Sharma, D.S.K.; Steinmetz, R. (2010). "Near fixation of melanism in panthers of the Malay Peninsula". Journal of Zoology. 282: 201–206. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2010.00731.x.

Melanism (good basic overview) - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melanism

Black panthers (good basic overview) - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_panther