Dear Chester, a couple of years back you wrote about black panthers in Texas and had a theory on what they could be. What you mind sharing that? I think this is an extremely interesting topic.
Editor: It is definitely one of my favorite topics and one we get a lot of questions about. This is a lengthy answer but the only one that will give the whole story.
All of the large black cats you see on television and in zoos are black leopards or black jaguars.
Melanism is a condition where a hyper amount of black pigment dominates coloration of an animal. It happens in many animals ranging from squirrels to whitetail deer. Melanism is not uncommon in leopards and jaguars in certain parts of their range.
The general assumption with “black panther” sightings in Texas is that these are black or melanistic cougars. The problem is there has never been a melanistic cougar observed by science either in a zoo, captive setting, killed by a hunter, mounted by a taxidermist or otherwise positively identified.
There is one grainy black and white photo of a cougar killed in Costa Rica in the 1950s that is very dark but that photo is questionable and on close examination the animal looks chocolate brown instead of purely black.
There are dark brown cougars, but no melanistic ones we are aware of. For melanistic cougars to be the answer to Texas’ “panther” question there would have to be many of them, and there is no proof of any of them.
Jaguars as previously mentioned however do throw melanistic offering and are native to Texas. They were allegedly wiped out more than 100 years ago, but our investigations show there are still isolated sightings of typical spotted jaguars in Texas. That is an important point because if jaguars were present, there would not only be black specimens sighted. Interestingly, recent research show that melanism is a dominant trait in jaguars. In other words, if a male jaguar for example moves into an area and starts breeding females there is a good chance much of the offering will be melanistic as well.
Could a remnant population of jaguars have survived that had the dominant melanistic genes?
That is not a likely answer for the entire “black panther” phenomenon, but it is not out of the range of possibility for some of the sightings reported throughout the years. Again, jaguars are not even positively known to still live in Texas in any numbers.
Melanism is also present, albeit rare, in bobcats.
Melanistic bobcats have been killed and mounted in Texas. In fact, one was mounted by Moye Taxidermy leaping at a quail. It hung in the Gander Mountain sporting goods store in Beaumont for the better part of a decade.
My experience shows that many people cannot differentiate between a bobcat and a cougar. Many are surprised that bobcats have tails at all. In fact, some have tails as long as eight inches. A black bobcat could easily be labeled a “black panther” by someone who is not aware of melanism in the species and might not be able to differentiate between a bobcat and a cougar.
Besides not understanding wild feline identification, the biggest problem in misidentifying cougars and bobcats is scale. A large bobcat seen at a distance with nothing to compare it to, looks much larger than it really is.
This is why feral house cats are often to blame for “black panther” sightings. Many are shocked to see house cats in the woods but the fact is they are all over the place and have established populations in many wild areas of the state. A large black house cat seen at a distance has been the cause of many “black panther” sightings this author has investigated. In fact, the bulk of videos and photos attributed to these mysterious cats have turned out to be house cats.
The jaguarundi is a prime candidate for “black panther” sightings.
A large jaguarundi in the common dark gray or chocolate brown phases crossing a road in front of a motorist or appearing before an unsuspecting hunter could easily be labeled a “black panther”. Since very few people are aware of jaguarundis, it’s highly unlikely they would report seeing one. The term “black panther” is quick and easy to report to others.
Everyone can relate to a “black panther” and virtually no one has ever heard of a jaguarundi. This species is native to Texas, and I believe it is found much farther north than the accepted range.
Your article on the aoudad was interesting to say the least. I had no idea the species was so widespread and could possibly turn up on anyone’s lease in the Hill Country, Trans Pecos or in parts of the Panhandle. Do you really think they are as smart as deer?
Editor: Thank you. Aoudads fascinate me and are far smarter than most hunters who have never encountered them would ever consider. One rancher had a 640-acre tract in Real County that was high fenced, and it had aoudads on it when he bought it. If you were to take all of the surface acres with canyons, hills and caves it is probably more like three times that size, at least it feels that way when I have been there.
Aoudads have rarely been killed there although herds as large as 30 have been seen.
He came across an aoudad ewe at a game sale and had the idea to fit her with a bell around her neck. When she got with the herd, he could hear the area they were in on the ranch. It is often extremely quiet out there.
The herd completely rejected her.
Dear Chester is it possible I saw an aoudad crossing the road near the Sabine Houston National Forest? It sure looked like one.
Editor: It’s not likely, but it is possible. There are ranches and individuals in East Texas who have aoudads, and they are masters at escaping.
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