Wild Cats 101: Black Cats and More on Melanism

By Jamie Zaccaria
Communications and Digital Content Manager

Melanistic leopard walking

It’s time for another Wild Cats 101 lesson! Panthera has written a few blogs on black cats before but this spooky season, we’re bringing you more information on melanism! Start your background research with What Are Black Panthers Anyway? and follow it up with How Often Can Big Cats Be Black? For extra credit, you can also check out Tracking the Black Panthers of Malaysia.

The Basics

In case you skipped the introductory lessons, here’s the rundown on black cats. Black coloring (melanism) in wild cats is a trait caused by genetics. These darker cats are the same species as their lighter counterparts; think of it as the difference between a brunette and a redhead. At least 14 species of wild cats can exhibit melanism, including; jaguars, leopards, servals, Geoffroy’s cats, oncillas, Pampas cats, African golden cats, marbled cats, bobcats, guiñas, southern tiger cats, margays, jungle cats and Asian golden cats. 

Despite being a popular term, a black panther is not a separate species of big cat, rather, it is a non-official name often given to big cats that have this dark coloring. Both jaguars and leopards can exhibit melanism which has led to the term “black panther” being used to describe both species of big cat over time.

A grid showing nine different type of black big cats
1) Asiatic Golden Cat © Wai-Ming Wong; 2) Jaguar © Panthera/Costa Rica Subcorredor Biologico/Barbilla Destierro; 3) Asiatic Leopard © RIMBA; 4) Jaguar © PANTHERA; 5) Asiatic Leopard © RIMBA; 6) Geoffroy's Cat © Sebastian Kennerknecht; 7) Asiatic Leopard © RIMBA; 8) Jaguar © PANTHERA 9) Asiatic Golden Cat © Wai-Ming Wong

Can a Cat be Half-and-Half?

No. “As far as we know (since no research to date has shown otherwise) incomplete expression of the melanistic phenotype in wild cats is not possible,” says Dr. Byron Weckworth, Panthera’s Director of Conservation Genetics. “This is because melanism follows a Mendelian mode of inheritance (i.e. there are two phenotypes for a given trait). As we currently understand it, a cat will only express one of these three combinations and not a mixture that allows them to be half or partly melanistic.” 

In the case of leopards, two genotypes (“AA” and “Aa”) express the dominant phenotype of normal coloring while the “aa” genotype expresses the recessive phenotype of black coloring. Jaguars, on the other hand, experience melanism due to the dominant allele of a gene. However, this dominance does not increase the frequency of black jaguars observed in the wild. It’s believed that melanism in both jaguars and leopards is thought to be expressed in 10% of each population. 

Do Black Cats Still Have Spots?

Yes. An interesting observation from Dr. Weckworth on melanistic leopards is that their rosettes are still visible in the proper light. This indicates that there are different molecular mechanisms that code for melanism vs. coat patterns in cats. This means a leopard or jaguar never really loses its spots, they’re simply more difficult to discern underneath their darker coloring. 

Melanistic leopard walking in the dark. You can see its spots under its dark coloring.
In this photo of a melanistic leopard in Malaysia, you can still see the cat's spots underneath its dark coloring. | © PANTHERA/Rimba/DWNP

Nature vs. Nurture 

Environmental conditions do not impact the expression of melanism as it is a purely genetic driven trait. The environment, however, does impact the success of melanistic individuals via natural selection, which impacts the frequency of those genes in the population. Dr. Weckworth notes that this non-random distribution of the melanistic trait leads us to believe that there is likely some sort of adaptive selection occurring. 

In some environments, having black coloring can be either helpful or harmful to that species’ survival and reproduction. Melanistic cats are more common in moist forests, for example in Malaysia, which suggests an adaptive advantage to the trait in these environments, perhaps related to thermoregulation or some other functional characteristic. 

In contrast, more open habitats, such as regions of Africa and China, show almost no presence of melanism, which we might hypothesize is due to purifying selection where melanistic individuals are less adapted to those habitats and so do not pass along their genes as frequently as normally patterned individuals do.

Black jaguar walking in the dark. You can see its spots under its dark coloring.
Black jaguars like this one are much more difficult to find and photograph in the wild than black leopards. | © PANTHERA

Despite the superstitions connected to melanistic felines, having one of these black cats cross your path in the wild is very lucky! Want to learn more about wild cats? Stay tuned for more Wild Cats 101 installments and check out our previous blog comparing jaguars and leopards in more detail.

You can also visit our site to learn more about jaguars, leopards, and small cats.