Mutants are natural variations which occur due to spontaneous genetic changes or the expression of recessive (hidden) genes. Recessive genes show up when there is too much inbreeding. Albinism (pure white), melanism (black) and retained juuvenile spots are the commonest mutations. Mutationssuch as these occur in domestic cats so why are they less common in big cats? Wild cats displaying these traits may be less likely to survive to pass on the traits. In captivity, humans control which traits are bred, hence the multitude of domestic cat colours and types. In the wild, nature selects against any trait which does not enhance the animal's survival chances.
In the past, the obvious reaction to any unusual big cat was to shoot it for the trophy room. As a result, many interesting mutations may have been wiped out before the genes were passed on. Some colour mutations which would disadvantage a wild big cat are bred in captivity and are not viable in the wild. It is questionable whether these mutants should be perpetuated for the sake of curiosity or aesthetics alone.
The Puma is normally tawny in colour. Melanistic, leucistic, albino and grey individuals have been reported. Guggisberg reports that pumas have both red and grey colour phases. The red phase ranges from buff through to tawny and dominates in tropical regions. The grey phase ranges from silvery grey, through bluish to slatey grey and is found in dry habitats. There is also speculation that the colour changes according to the season to provide year-round camouflage. In other wild cat species, melanism is associated with dense, dark forest conditions (jaguar, leopard) or high altitude (serval). In more open country, black would become sun-bleached to a rusty red-brown colour. Thomas Roosevelt, hunting in Colorado, records shooting both red and slatey-grey pumas. Guggisberg also reported black pumas in South and Central America, but never in the USA or Canada. A "black puma" was killed in Costa Rica in 1959, but appears dark brown/dark tawny rather than melanistic. The paler areas on the face and belly indicate a dark individual not a melanistic one. There are reports of melanism in South American pumas.
Pumas vary from pale sandy through to dark tawny. Black pumas have been reported in Kentucky, one of which had a paler belly which again suggests dark brown rather than melanism. There have been reports of glossy black (not merely dark or dusky) pumas from Kansas, and Eastern Nebraska. There are reports of a black big cat in North America. It is known as the North American Black Panther (NABP) although like the British ABC (Alien Big Cats), descriptions have a mixture of big cat traits. Melanistic pumas are one possible identity for the NABP. The NABP may be a result of inbreeding in an isolated population of the eastern puma; the confirmed cases in Costa Rica may also be associated with isolation and inbreeding. Eastern Cougars (pumas) have not been scientifically studied to the same degree as the Western Cougar and it is debated as to whether the "Eastern Cougar" exists as a separate entity.
In his "Histoire Naturelle" (printed in multiple volumes from 1749 onwards), Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, wrote of the "Black Cougar": "M. de la Borde, King’s physician at Cayenne, informs me, that in the [South American] Continent there are three species of rapacious animals; that the first is the jaguar, which is called the tiger; that the second is the couguar [sic], called the red tiger, on account of the uniform redness of his hair; that the jaguar is of the size of a large bull-dog, and weighs about 200 pounds; that the couguar is smaller, less dangerous, and not so frequent in the neighbourhood of Cayenne as the jaguar; and that both these animals take six years in acquiring their full growth. He adds, that there is a third species in these countries, called the black tiger, of which we have given a figure under the appellation of the black couguar.
"The head," says M. de la Borde, "is pretty similar to that of the common couguar; but the animal has long black hair, and likewise a long tail, with strong whiskers. He weighs not above forty pounds. The female brings forth her young in the hollows of old trees." This black couguar may be the same animal which Piso and Marcgrave call the jaguarette, or jaguar with black hair, and which no other traveller has mentioned under the name of jaguarette. I only find, in a note of M. Sonini de Manoncour, that the jaguarette is called the black tiger at Cayenne, and that he is of a different species from the jaguar, being smaller, and thinner in the body. This animal is fierce and rapacious; but he is very rare in the neighbourhood of Cayenne."
An additional, more accurate, description of the black cougar was provided by Mr Pennant which is considered more accurate, though different from that of M. de la Borde: "Black tiger, or cat, with the head black, sides, fore part of the legs, and the tail, covered with short and very glossy hairs, of a dusky colour, sometimes spotted with black, but generally plain: Upper lips white: At the corner of the mouth a black spot: Long hairs above each eye, and long whiskers on the upper lip: Lower lip, throat, belly, and the inside of the legs, whitish, or very pale ash-colour: Paws white: Ears pointed: Grows to the size of a heifer of a year old: Has vast strength in its limbs.-- Inhabits Brasil and Guiana: Is a cruel and fierce beast; much dreaded by the Indians; but happily is a scarce species;" (Pennant's Synops. of quad. p 180). According to translator Smellie in 1781, this description was taken from two black cougars which were shown in London some years previously (though these were most probably black leopards brought back from India .
And a further note adds "We find, in the Iroquois country, tigers of a grayish colour, but not spotted. They have a long tail, and hunt the porcupine. The Iroquois kill them more frequently on trees than on the ground […] Some of them have reddish kind of hair, and, in all of them, it is very fine, and their skins make excellent furs."
Native Americans referred to the black puma as the "devil cat" and considered it an evil version of the more familiar tawny animal. Since the end of the 19th Century, people in the Eastern States have reported seeing black pumas, which they have termed "panthers" to distinguish them from tawny pumas. In 1899, a black puma was reported near Enosburg Falls.
In Harmsworth Natural History (1910, chief contributors R Lydekker, Sir H Johnston & Prof JR Ainsworth-Davis) p 392: In addition to these local races of puma, individuals of a brown colour, and others nearly, if not quite, black, are sometimes met with. Other specimens may be nearly white; but the statement that albino pumas have been found in the Alleghany Mountains and New Mexico are not authentic.
In "Panthers of the Coastal Plain", (1994), Charles Humprheys stated that had been more than 500 puma sightings in North Carolina and that half of these reported coal-black animals. Further sightings were reported from Kentucky. Since the 1950s, there have been reports of black pumas from Illinois around Decatur and the Shawnee National Forest. In Michigan, the majority of black puma sightings have been concentrated around Oakland County. Around 15% of puma sightings in California between 1957 - 1975 mentioned black pumas, with one of these animals being dubbed "The Black Mountain Lion of Devil's Hole" by the Las Trampas Regional Park.
The "Cherokee Cougar" taxidermy is claimed to be a black puma. The 1.87m (6' 2") big cat is variously claimed to have been shot in Tennessee or Montana and variously claimed to be genuine, a hoax (tawny puma dyed black) or a hybrid. Tennessee has a tradition of "black panther" sightings. DNA testing by East Tennessee State University's Zoology Dept appears to confirm it as a puma and that hairs tested were not dyed, however there are no definitive results confirming it as a melanistic individual. From it appears solid black although the available photograph appears mahogany brown. Melanism is recessive in leopards, but an incomplete dominant in jaguars. Mounts of melanistic leopards appear more prone to fading to dark brown than those of black jaguars. Black domestic cats (also a recessive mutation) are also prone to "rusting" of the fur. This suggest that if genuine, the black puma taxidermy may be a recessive mutation. A hybrid of black leopard and puma would produce a rosetted individual because the recessive melanism would be masked by the puma's tawny colour. A hybrid of black jaguar and puma would produce a charcoal hybrid with rosettes; the semi-dominant jaguar melanism only produces full black if the individual has 2 copies of the gene (as found in Bear Creeks "black jaglion" hybrid).
In January 2007, a forestry worker in South Carolina spotted a "black panther" alongside the Chattooga River which forms the boundary between Georgia and South Carolina. This was dismissed as an escaped or released exotic pet black leopard
In autumn 2007, a hunter in southeastern Idaho shot (and had taxidermised) a puma that had a black muzzle, throat and chest (to between the forelegs) and a further palm-print-sized black patch behind one of the ears. The puma was otherwise normal in colour. This "partial melanism" is most likely a somatic mutation causing mosaicism in the same way as Ranger the black-patched lion in Glasgow - the equivalent of a port-wine stain in humans.
In 2007, there were several sightings and webcam footage of an apparent black puma in Lapeer County, Michigan. Further footage of a black puma was shot in Selma, Alabama. This suggested that Michigan had a resident, breeding puma population that included melanistic pumas.
In August, 2009 a litter of darkly pigmented wild puma cubs were found in Florida. The cubs were grey with darker points (legs, tail, face and ears) which indicates the emergence of a gene that modifies the normal tawny colour to a cooler grey colour. For four cubs to be born with the same colouration indicates 3 possibilities: both parents carried a recessive gene for this colouration; one or both parents had the dominant gene for this colouration in which case the parents would also be grey; a germ-line mutation in one parent (a normal colour parent producing eggs or sperm that contain this as a new mutation)
In general, North American "black panthers" are considered to be exotic escapes, mostly of black leopards which were more fashionable pets than their spotted counterparts. To confirm melanism in pumas requires a specimen whose origins are not clouded, preferably a live capture. However, an isolated specimen does not prove a whole population of melanistic pumas, especially when that specimen is dead (in the same way that the white tiger is extinct in the wild due to hunting).
Confusingly, it has been reported that most pumas kept as pets in the United Kingdom were black rather than tawny; the rarity of black pumas makes this extremely unlikely. This confusion has arisen because pumas are sometimes referred to as panthers and black panthers (black leopards) were kept as pets. The confusion is not helped by articles which erroneously refer to "the black puma out of The Jungle Book" (pumas are not found in India!). It was possibly this error which led the "X-Project Magazine" to report that Britain's mysterious alien big cats could be descended from a black puma x leopard hybrid. A self-sustaining population of hybrids is extremely unlikely due to problems of sterility.
Until melanism is confirmed in the puma, there are several other possible explanations that could explain black puma sightings.
- Black bobcats. In some of the locations melanistic bobcats have been verified and although quite different in size and shape, could be misidentified by a casual observer.
- Black leopards. These are melanistic versions of the Indian Leopard and were popular exotic pets. They are not native to North America, but could exist as escapees. Their melanism is due to recessive genes i.e. a leopard with one recessive gene will be spotted, but a leopard inheriting 2 recessive genes (one from each parent) will be black.
- Black Jaguars. Until the 1940s, jaguars could still be found in southern parts of the USA: Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Arizona. They were believed hunted to extinction in these regions, but could be extending their range northwards again. Melanism in jaguars is due to a dominant gene. A jaguar with one melanism gene will be dark charcoal. A jaguar with 2 melanism genes will be coal black. Spotted jaguars cannot "carry" the melanism gene, but black jaguars can produce spotted offspring.
- Jaguar/Puma hybrids. Jaguars and pumas inhabit different terrain and would normally avoid each other. Matings between such different species can only occur where they have been raised together. Because the jaguar melanism gene is dominant, a puma would have to be mated to a black jaguar in order for the offspring to inherit the melanism gene. Such offspring would likely be a charcoal grey colour (as has been demonstrated in a black jaguar/lion hybrid). Male big cat hybrids are sterile, though females may be fertile. To perpetuate the gene in the puma population, any fertile female offspring would have to mate back to pumas.
A white puma has been photographed; the cat was not albino (pink-eyed or blue-eyed) but leucistic (pigmented skin and eyes). A white puma is allegedly displayed at the Rothschild Zoological Museum, Tring, England - it is probably the same white puma that London Zoo bought from the animal dealer Jamrach. It lived at London Zoo from 27th May 1848 until its death on 29th January 1852. I have been to the Rothschild Zoological Museum and can find a white leopard (the one shown on the Mutant Leopards page), but not a white puma so I believe this report may be erroneous due to the ambiguous use of the term "panther". There have been reports of white and albino pumas. A white puma was reported several times in 2001 at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and was identified from photographs and reports as an albino puma.
There have been reports of blue (grey pumas). Some normally tawny coloured cats have a grey colour morphs (e.g. grey bobcats have been reported) so a blue or grey puma is not an impossibility. Poor light or moonlight can lead to a sandy-coloured animal looking grey.
Either a colour morph of puma or a hybrid? There are recorded captive breedings of puma with ocelot which produced patterned offspring. In an isolated population, a colour morph can become more common due to inbreeding.. This individual is lean and leggy indicating a juvenile that hasn't let lost its spots. The photo originated from Dr Marcella Kelly in 2002 and was taken with a remote camera in Belize.
This photo of a puma from Newnes Pictorial Knowledge (1936 reprint) shows a spotted indivual.
This photo of a puma from Newnes Pictorial Knowledge (1936 reprint) shows a spotted indivual.
There is also a gracile (long-legged) form of Puma known as the Onza. This was once thought to be a relict population of a prehistoric Cheetah, but now appears to be a variant of the puma.
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For more information on the genetics of colour and pattern:
Robinson's Genetics for Cat Breeders & Veterinarians 4th Ed (the current version)
Genetics for Cat Breeders, 3rd Ed by Roy Robinson (earlier version showing some of the historical misunderstandings)
Cat Genetics by A C Jude (1950s cat genetics text; demonstrates the early confusion that chinchilla was a form of albinism)
For more information on genetics, inheritance and gene pools see:
The Pros and Cons of Inbreeding
The Pros and Cons of Cloning
For more information on anomalous colour and pattern forms in big cats see
Karl Shuker's "Mystery Cats of the World" (Robert Hale: London, 1989 - some of the genetics content is outdated)
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