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So You Say You Saw A Black Panther? Here’s Why I Don’t Believe You. —Guest Post—

A Black Panther (i.e. a melanistic Jaguar).
Photo by Bruce McAdam.
    Black panthers have been part of modern lore in the United States for more than 100 years, despite the lack of any compelling evidence of their existence. As executive director of the Cougar Network, which is the only research non-profit that studies cougar range expansion in North America, I am frequently sent photos of misidentified felines and also often hear stories about black panther sightings. So for exactly this reason, the Cougar Network adheres to a scientifically rigorous standard to ensure that cougar observations are legitimate. Specifically, we want to see photos, tracks, DNA evidence, or video of the animals under consideration; we simply can’t accept sighting data because it’s often unreliable. And this isn’t to say people aren’t seeing a cougar when it’s reported to me – based on research I’ve done, we know they are recolonizing the midwestern part of the U.S. – it’s just that we can’t verify anything based on a story alone.

    However, black panther sightings are a little different than sightings of a regular old cougar – reporting something like a black panther is more akin to reporting Big Foot or the Loch Ness monster – outside of the rare instance of an escaped pet or a zoo animal, I’m quite skeptical. If black panthers existed in the wild in the United States, we should at the very least be seeing them killed on roads. For example, only one male (frequently photographed) cougar inhabited a small area outside of LA until it was just recently killed by a car. But we don’t see black panthers as road kill at all, ever. For that reason alone, I maintain skepticism when I hear black panther stories. But that’s not the only reason:  

    There is no compelling evidence that a single wild “black panther” has ever existed in United States. The largest cat in the United States, and in fact the fourth largest cat in the world, is the mountain lion (Puma concolor) – also known as cougar, catamount, painter, and in Florida, panther. Adult cougars are about 120-150 pounds, have tawny or brown coats, and with the exception of the endangered Florida panther population and a few solitary and long-distance travelers, live in the western part of the country. Cougars have been hunted for centuries and are one of the best-studied animals on the planet, yet there has never been a cougar documented displaying melanism. Melanism is a genetic variation that results in excess pigmentation turning the coat entirely black, and this variation just isn’t part of a cougar’s genetic make-up. So, you see, there has never been such thing as a black mountain lion.

Black Panther (i.e., a melanistic Leopard). 
Photo from Wikimedia.
    So, when most of us think about a black panther we’re actually envisioning either a melanistic jaguar (which live in South America) or a melanistic leopard (which live in Africa or Asia – think Bagheera from “The Jungle Book”), both of which are huge cats with black coats. These are the only animals that legitimately fit the “black panther” description and they simply don’t live in the United States (it is true that jaguars are native to North America and a couple of individual animals may still be hanging on in extreme southwestern United States, but in modern history these animals were restricted to the southwestern extent of the country so we can’t use them to explain why people see Black Panthers). And any cat in the United States that’s even close to being large enough to be confused with a leopard would be a cougar – and they’re not black. So why are people absolutely convinced that’s what they are seeing?

    It turns out perception isn’t entirely objective. In other words, your brain is messing with you. Remember “The Dress” – the viral phenomenon that hit social media earlier this year? This is a perfect example of what I mean when I say perception isn’t objective. I can almost guarantee if you talked about The Dress, you found at least one person who saw an entirely different color than you did. That’s because the color you see, as it turns out, depends on context. Some of us were primed to see the dress in a daylight setting, making it look white with orange trim (that was me!). Others could only see it as dark blue because their eyes were primed to view it as being indoors or in a darker setting (the actual color of the dress was blue). This Wired article does a great job explaining this phenomenon. Similarly then, photographs of animals in the trees, bushes, or shadows look a lot darker than they do when they are in broad daylight; and sightings of “black panthers” early in the morning or late in the evening are caused by the low lighting and shadows cast at that time of the day. All this might seem obvious, but this simple fact is more deceiving than you’d think. Our brains are quite good at tricking us into seeing something we’re not. And if that’s the case, then what are these people seeing?

The story behind this picture is here. The house cat looks even
bigger than it really is because it is closer to camera than the
cougar, a camera trick called forced perspective.

    Most often it’s house cats. First of all, many of the photos I’ve seen are just too blurry to confidently identify to species. But one thing I can’t stress enough about house cats is how small they are in comparison to a cougar, which again is the only cat in the U.S. remotely the same size as a leopard. To put it in perspective, if a large house cat was measured at 12” at the shoulders, it wouldn’t even come up to the top of most car tires, which are about 16” high. A cougar, on the other hand, can be 30” high – putting its shoulders at about the height of the front hood of that same car. They’re gigantic, and I genuinely think most folks aren’t accustomed to the size difference; our search image – the way our brains expect different items to look – just isn’t calibrated to seeing that big of a cat. This might be why the majority of cougar reports I receive are from areas where cougars haven’t lived for more than 100 years. Most people in those areas (usually the eastern U.S.) haven’t ever seen a wild cougar (or jaguar or leopard for that matter) and I think excitement rises when trail cameras or fuzzy videos reveal a feline (even a large feline) in the woods.

    So what do you do if you’re convinced you saw something strange?  My advice is always to stop and think for a second: does what I just saw make sense? What else could it have been? What is the most reasonable explanation? In science, that’s what we call parsimony: the idea that we shouldn’t go looking for complex explanations when a simple one will suffice.  And if a simple explanation won’t do the trick – on rare occasions it doesn’t – then there must be mountains of corroborating evidence to back up the complex explanation.

    So if your neighbor’s cousin’s girlfriend’s dad swears up and down he saw a black panther run across the yard out of the corner of his eye at 5:30 last Thursday morning, think about it. Does that really make sense? What else could have caught his attention out of the corner of his eye that early in the morning? I’ll give you a hint: unless he lives in the Brazilian Pantanal or the forests of India, it was not a black panther.

    It was probably a house cat or a black lab.

    Michelle LaRue is a research ecologist and public speaker at the University of Minnesota, and is also the executive director of the Cougar Network, which is the only research non-profit that focuses on cougar range expansion in North America. Michelle focuses her own research on the spatial ecology of mammals and birds in many ecosystems, including cougars, penguins, seals, and polar bears. Her work has been covered by hundreds of international media outlets such as the BBC, NBC Nightly News, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, and Scientific American.