Black leopards and jaguars, usually called with the common term “black panther”, are often seen in modern pop-culture. There’s something almost magical about these gorgeous big cats and their pitch-black coats that just hits harder than their traditional yellow-brown spots.
When it comes to the real black panthers, however, they are not as common. Melanism, as is the official name of their condition is caused by a recessive genetic mutation. This mutation occurs in about 10% of leopards. Given that the worldwide population of wild leopards is in the low 5 digits (12,000 to 14,000 as of 2014) makes black leopards even rarer.
As with all rare things, however, seeing a black leopard in the wild nowadays is even more special. This is exactly what happened to 24-year-old Anurag Gawande in the Tadoba National Park in India. The young man stumbled upon the animal accidentally on a dirt road in the middle of the park. The leopard was hunting a deer at the time so Anurag didn’t have much time to photograph the animal but, fortunately, still managed to get a few good shots.
The end result was several absolutely stunning photos. Anurag is not a part of the national park’s staff – he was just a visitor in the park, on a safari there with his mother and brother. So, stumbling on the beautiful animal was definitely a highlight for him – he described the encounter as “unique” and “like finding a needle in a haystack”.
The Tadoba National Park is officially dubbed a tiger reserve and is the largest tiger reserve in the Maharashtra region in India. However, it’s also the home of a big number of leopards – of the 1,500-2,000 estimated black leopards still in the wild today, a large portion live in the tropical forests of South-East Asia and in India.
What exactly is melanism?
Out of the different “common” mutations seen in wild big cats, melanism is probably the most well-known from the general public. It’s seen in 13 out of the 37 different species of wild cats and can be either complete (fully black coat) or somewhat partial, as is the case with the leopard seen by Anurag Gawande.
Curiously enough, melanism is caused by different recessive genetic mutations in different cats, research shows. For example, in leopards, melanism is caused by the recessive form of their ASIP gene while in jaguars it’s caused by the dominant form of their MC1R gene. So, while both are called “black panthers”, not only are the two species of black cats completely different but even the mutation they have “in common” is actually caused by entirely different mutations.
Why is melanism so popular in some cats?
As rare as black panthers are, 10% is still technically a very high percentage for a random mutation. This means that melanism is not just a matter of chance but it’s also affected by natural selection, i.e. it offers some benefits to the cats’ survival.
Scientists have speculated about several possible advantages of melanism:
- Parasite resistance
Camouflage is an easy and intuitive conclusion that almost doesn’t need to be discussed – both leopards and jaguars live and hunt in rain forests where shade is often abundant and a black coat can help them blend with their surroundings.
Parasite resistance and thermoregulation are less intuitive evolutionary advantages but they are also fairly likely given the research done up until now.
Wild leopards can be found both in Africa, India, South-East Asia, and even China but black leopards are especially common only in South-East Asia and parts of India – in most other wild leopard habitats black panthers are much rarer.