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A panther is a term applied to several species of big cat when they occur as solid black. Leopards, bobcats and jaguars for instance are usually spotted – but melanism (an increased amount of dark pigment caused by melanin) can cause any of these species to be all black. Spotted and all-black kittens can occur in the same litter. Black may even be able to become the dominant color in a small breeding population.

But is there such a thing as a black mountain lion (also called cougar or puma)? Wildlife experts say no because no one has ever photographed or shot one. However, verbal accounts exist from history. Black panthers were well-known to the early settlers in the Appalachian mountains and the Ozarks. Frightening encounters with black panthers were published in Texas newspapers in the 1800s. The history of Montgomery County, Arkansas, is said to contain the experience of one Emily Stacy. Home alone with her children, she was forced to load a musket and shoot through the door at a panther that was trying to get into her house. In the morning, the panther - described as a black mountain lionlay dead on her porch. 

This illustration of a “Black Puma, Felis Nigra” is a watercolor drawing by James Hope Stewart published in 1843 in “The Naturalist’s Library, Mammalia, Vol. 1, Cats” by Sir William Jardine. Inside, it says that the puma, also commonly known as panther, mountain lion or cougar, is native to North, Central and South America. It’s been said that two black cougars from America were exhibited in London in the 1700s, although evidence no longer exists to prove they were actually cougars and not another type of big cat.

If the many sightings of black panthers in recent years are not of melanistic cougars, what else could they be? Many people don’t know that the American West, especially the Southwest, was the natural home of jaguars. They were almost completely hunted out by the early 1900s, and the last known pair were shot in Arizona by 1965. It was 2001 before photographic evidence proved that jaguars had returned to the United States. (There are better pics of jaguars to be found but THIS pic is from video footage of one of the jaguars in Arizona.)

Is it possible that black jaguars are responsible for some of the black panther sightings? Are black jaguars newly returned to the US also or have they been here all along? Perhaps natural selection played a role in their survival – black cats might have been better able to stay out of sight and avoid being killed by hunters. 

In many instances, witnesses to the black cats may be misjudging their size. A jaguarundi is a cat closely related to the cougar but much smaller. It can occur in several colors including solid dark gray or chocolate brown. The cat is known to live in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida. Jaguarundis have also been reported in several states bordering these ones. From a distance, people would notice the jaguarundi’s build is unlike that of a house cat (see photo at right), and it has a very long, thick tail like a cougar’s. It could easily resemble a black panther. Plus, the jaguarundi likes the daylight hours, making it easier to be spotted by humans.

The exotic pet trade might provide another reason for black panther sightings. In 2009, the Humane Society of the United States pointed out that of the estimated 5,000 to 7,000 tigers in the country, only 10 percent are in zoos: the rest are privately owned. It’s the same with many other big cat species, as it has been unbelievably easy to purchase these animals as pets in the past (more and more legislation is being written now to ban exotic pets). Dealers may employ selective breeding to create a more attractive (and expensive) “product”, including black panthers. Big cats may escape or may be deliberately set free by owners who can no longer afford to keep them. Most don’t survive on their own for long – but some just might. 

Another possibility exists because most big cat species can interbreed, and many big cats possess the genes for a black coat. If a pet leopard escaped or was released, is it far-fetched to imagine that it might breed with an indigenous mountain lion? For that matter, a wandering wild jaguar might meet up with a wild cougar. In either case, some new DNA might be introduced into the existing wild population. 

Meanwhile, there’s no doubt that confirmed sightings of normal-colored cougars are on the rise in places other than the western United States and Canada. These creatures once roamed almost all of North America, and may be regaining some of their former territory. In recent years, cougars have been spotted in Michigan ( ), Alaska, Kansas, Indiana and even West Virginia. Since there are several subspecies of mountain lion, perhaps one or more of the subspecies are able to naturally produce black offspring. And a black lion might be found anywhere their usual-colored siblings are. For instance, the Florida Panther is really a cougar – and there have also been reports of black cougars in that state.

While many plausible explanations exist for the existence of an American black panther, there is also the slimmest, slightest chance that it’s a true cryptid – a brand new species or subspecies that we know nothing about. Just such an animal is appearing in other countries. Hundreds of black panther sightings are reported in Britain every year and also in Australia.

Appalachian black panthers are revered by cryptics because biologists refuse to recognize the possibility of their existence. From Tennessee and West Virginia to the north, reports of black panther sightings are somewhat frequent.

Although such possible prey as deer and rodents, as well as fish are available in Appalachia, the region is very far out of the jaguar's natural range and in the winter, much, much colder than anywhere jaguars are known to live. And if the Appalachian cat is natural, it would almost have to be a jaguar, as scientists do not consider a black phase of the mountain lion remotely probable.

Although relying on explanations is not nearly as intriguing as taking the cryptozoological approach, there are a number of factors that can attempt to account for big, black cat sightings in the Northeast. First off, some sightings have been officially deemed hoaxes. Others have been cases of mistaken identity, where black house cats looked larger at great distance.

The third, probably most likely explanation of a credible report would be a sighting of an escaped jaguar or leopard from a zoo (and escapes have happened historically). However, an actual black cat could also be the offspring of zoo escapees, which maintains that the animals are actually surviving in the area on their own.

Many people like to believe that such strange and noble creatures can exist so far out of place, but, as with most cryptids, scientists deem their existence unlikely. However, there are a number of theories that account for sightings of cryptid black panthers in Appalachia.