What Are Black Panthers, Anyway?

By Angela Cave
Senior Digital Writer

A black leopard in Thailand

With Black Panther coming out this weekend, we wanted to clear up some confusion about T'Challa's superhero identity in the original Marvel comic book story. It's no surprise that a big cat — with its strength, grace, and top rank in the food chain — would become the namesake of a powerful character. But what are wild "black panthers," anyway? We spoke with Panthera's Chief Scientist Dr. Alan Rabinowitz to bust some myths.

Where does the word “panther” come from?
Most people seem to think that “panther” is just a generic word for cats, which isn’t far from the truth. The word goes way back in its etymology. But it generally comes from Panthera, the Latin genus or taxonomic classification for all the big cats — mainly, tigers, lions, jaguars, and leopards.

So what are people thinking of when they say “black panther?"
It’s not a great word in terms of actually trying to picture what exact cat you’re speaking out. It’s called a common name, which often have different meanings for different people. Outside of the United States, “panther” means a black leopard, or it could mean just a leopard. In the United States, strangely enough, “panther” is most often used for mountain lions or pumas. [If you] think of panthers only as black cats, then you would have to allow a black jaguar to become a "panther," too. But by definition, actually, “panthers” are leopards, mostly black leopards, in Africa and Asia — and they’re mountain lions in the United States.

Why are some big cats black?
Some of the big cats are black for the same reason that in any species, including humans, we have different variations of skin color. There are melanistic phases of the big cats. The interesting thing is not all species can be black. We know of no black pumas. We know of no truly black tigers. We know that jaguars can become black… we know of no black snow leopards. Yet there can be white tigers. It’s a skin color variation that happens to be very specific for certain species.

Where in the world do black leopards and black jaguars live?
Jaguars in general live in the Americas—from northern Mexico through northern Argentina in their current range. It could theoretically occur anywhere. We know that most black jaguars occur in the Amazon — in the dark, deep rainforest. Black leopards can occur anywhere throughout their range in both Asia and Africa. In Africa, they’re solitary and mysterious and hard to find — and often stay up in trees, where people don’t spot them and they pounce down.

How would you describe the killing and fighting style of the jaguar or the leopard?
I think that a black jaguar is probably one of the ultimate martial artists of the animal world, but the same thing could be said in a different way of the black leopard or a leopard in general. There’s a reason why martial artists have forms which imitate these cats. To watch a leopard, [with] its agility and skill, is beautiful. And yet it doesn’t just pounce and take an animal down. When they kill, they often kill very surgically. Leopards are not nearly as big as tigers, but they often take down similar prey because they go for the neck and drag it down. Jaguars are much more powerful than leopards, but it’s their ability to kill in a very quick way that just terrifies people. For small prey, it lifts the cranial cap literally off from the skull after puncturing its canines into the head. With big prey many times its size and weight, it punctures its canines into the spinal vertebrae and drops the animal.

Black jaguar walking in the dark. You can see its spots under its dark coloring.
A black jaguar walks past a camera trap in Costa Rica. | © Panthera

Why do you think we are so captivated by these animals that we would create a comic book hero channeling them?
I think humans are captivated by anything that appears to be physically more powerful than we are. Yes, we have guns and we could kill them, but in a battle, we stand no chance. Even with a gun, if these animals wanted to kill you, they would probably do it while they’re dying. I think the power, the courage, the agility, the fierceness of these animals — even though they don’t kill people, both of these cats don’t go out of their way to bother people, and very few people are ever injured by them, and relatively little livestock is bothered by them, but we make a big deal about them because they represent a power and a strength that human beings aspire to and emulate.

I think that the use of Black Panther as a comic book hero, as something that’s powerful and mysterious, absolutely comes from these cats. An animal like the black jaguar or a jaguar in general — they’re a massively solidly built muscular powerhouse of an animal. They can take down and kill something 10 times their weight, many times their body size, with a single bite to the neck or to the skull. Black leopards are very sneaky and sly, not quite as powerful as the jaguar, but more nimble and agile, able to leap and get to different places fast, and often pounce upon their prey in a way that’s never seen in lions or tigers or bigger cats.

A black leopard in Malaysia
A black leopard in Malaysia | © PANTHERA/RIMBA/DWNP

The superhero is described as a genius, a skilled hunter and tracker, and an expert fighter with enhanced strength, speed, and agility. Which of these remind you most of what we see in the wild?
When people have gone to Africa and watched black leopards and compared them to other large cats, the leopard seems to be in many ways more cunning. The biggest cats — tigers and lions — kind of bully their way into situations. Black jaguars and black African leopards — black panthers, if you want to call them that — they’re all very clever, very calculating. Even zookeepers that have them in captivity say the same thing. You leave a door to a cage open even just a little bit… it seems to take the tiger or the lion a lot longer to figure it out — if they do — than it does the jaguar or the leopard. I believe the black jaguar is not only powerful, but one of the most indomitable and clever cats in the world.

A black leopard in Thailand
A black leopard is spotted on a DSLR camera trap in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand. | © PARINYA PADUNGTIN

Learn more about leopards here and jaguars here. And follow the conservation adventures of some real-life superheroes — Panthera scientists, including Dr. Rabinowitz, on the Journey of the Jaguar — securing the future of the jaguar throughout Latin America.