I have been reading a couple of book concurrenly over the last week, or so, Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record by Errol Fuller and The Ghost with Trembling Wings by Scott Weidensaul. The former is a beautiful, but very melancholy, look at several species that are extinct and gone forever. Species like the Carolina Parakeet, Yangtze River Dolphin, Eskimo Curlew, and Passenger Pigeon are discussed as are a handful of species that, while considered extinct by mainstream science, may yet be clinging to life in the more remote corners of the planet. The Ivory-billed woodpecker and the Thylacine are two such examples of these types of animals. The book is beautiful and full of photographs. There is something about the black and white images that is truly haunting. The emotions I feel when looking at them are jarring. Guilt, sadness, anger…they are all present and mixed up in a cauldron of sentiment that is impossible to ignore. The latter is a book about loss, recovery, endurance and resurrection. The book is enthralling and hard to put down. It is in this book that something caught my eye…
In Chapter 5 of his book, Weidensaul discusses anomalist cat sightings. Having grown up in the Appalachians, he is particularly interested in cougar sightings. The Eastern cougar is thought to have gone extinct around the turn of the century. Still, Weidensaul points out, people continue to report sightings and, from time to time dead pumas turn up in the region. Clearly, there are still a few cougars in the East, the author concludes. The discussion was fairly typical up this point: How many? Where did they come from? Were they ever really completely gone in the first place? Etc. Then I read the following passage:
“How reliable are those eyewitness sightings? One measure of their veracity might be the large number – between a quarter and a third – that involve black panthers. This is more troubling than it may at first appear. While black leopards and jaguars are fairly common, I know of only two documented cases of black cougars, nor is melanism at all common among North America’s other wild cats.”
Did you catch it? Weidensaul wrote “I know of only two documented cases of black cougars…” Well, that is news to me. In my book Shadow Cats: The Black Panthers of North America, I discuss the cougar as a possible suspect in the black panther mystery, but point out that there has never been an officially documented case of a melanistic puma. There are stories to be sure – many of which I discuss in the book - some of which are very old, but they are stories only. I have sent Mr. Weidensaul an email requesting some additional detail about these two documented cases of a black cougar. If he replies, I will update you here.
The question of whether or not pumas can be black came up again a day or two later when a reader of the blog sent me a link to a very interesting article. You may have read of the recent discovery of a ‘Lost City’ in Honduras. The ruins, built by an unknown civilization and uncovered in 2015, have yielded many items of archaeological significance since excavation began in earnest. Somewhat surprisingly, they have proven to be home to a treasure trove of rare wildlife as well. Already, three species previously thought extinct, including the pale-face bat, have been found. It was the first paragraph of the article, however, that struck me with the force of a baseball bat. It reads:
“Trond Larsen was night-searching for rare frogs and insects in the Lost City recently discovered within Honduras’ Mosquitia Rainforest when his headlamp illuminated something surprising: a curious black puma. Larsen, a researcher who led this February 2017 expedition into the so-called Lost City of the Monkey God, walked away from the encounter unscathed, but that puma was but a bite of the magnificence Larsen and his team would find.”
I know you caught it that time. A black puma was seen among the ruins of a lost city in the heart of the Honduran rainforest. The witness was none other than Trond Larsen, of the Conservation International’ Rapid Assessment Program. Yet, nothing else is spoken about this remarkable sighting. In fact, the way it reads, it seems there is nothing remarkable about it at all.
What is going on here? Do black cougars exist or not? Why does no one seem interested in following up sightings like that of Trond Larsen? Are scientists so specialized that remarkable discoveries outside of their area of expertise are going unrecognized?
Finally, I will leave you with the latest credible black panther sighting reported to me.
"Hi, Mike - really enjoy your blog. I don't know how meaningful this report is to your work, but I thought I'd send it to you as a datapoint.
In the summer of 2008 or 2009 I was riding my bike down a gravel road in Frisco just after dawn. About 40 yards ahead of me I watched a big black cat casually run across the road and then sail over a barbed wire fence into some trees. I'm not a good judge of animal mass, but it was about waist high, probably 5 or 6 feet from head to tail. It happened so quickly and was too far away for me to get any details other than the fact that it had a very long thick tail, was very dark, and moved like a cat. Coincidentally, this occurred next to a creek in Frisco called Panther Creek.
Here is the spot that I saw the cat: https://firstname.lastname@example.org,-96.8718794,3a,75y,262.94h,78.47t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sbJvie1BRm3X-8zb070OC0Q!2e0!7i16384!8i8192
The fence on the left wasn't there at the time, but the water treatment plant did exist. There weren't nearly as many subdivisions in the area either. Lots of open land back then.
Foolishly, I kept riding down the road and looked for it when I crossed the point where I saw it jump, but never saw it. For some reason, I thought I'd be able to out run it on my bike if I needed to, but I'll bet I would have been an exciting hunt for her if she decided to chase me down.
I thought for a long time what it could have been, thinking maybe it was just the silhouette of something else, which made it appear black. But, I was riding westward just after dawn when I saw it, so it definitely wasn't back-lit. I also spotted it before it entered the trees, so it would have been in the sunlight.
Also, I thought the sighting you posted on your blog from Plano about that same time was interesting. Maybe it was the same animal.”
- Brian Taylor
TCH Comment: Brian is right in that Frisco has boomed over the last decade. On the surface, a big cat sighting of any kind there seems ludicrous, but a sighting from 10-11 years ago is another matter. The description given is fairly typical: big, very dark to black, long thick tail. The area has been the source of black panther reports in the past (see distribution map). Too, I have had a handful of reports that have come from areas very close to water treatment plants, which I find interesting. I will be adding this sighting to my Black Panther Sighting Distribution Map.
To wrap it up, in the last week I have become aware of no less than three sightings of black pumas referred to by recognized men of science and academia. Again, I am making an effort to get more information on these sightings. I’ll let you all know how that goes.
If you would like to know more about the black panther mystery, check out my book, Shadow Cats: The Black Panthers of North America. You can hit the link to the right or click here for more information.
Fuller, Errol. Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record. Princeton University Press, 2014.
Fuller, Errol. Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record. Princeton University Press, 2014. Page 126.
Funds, Yessenia. “Exploration of 'Lost City' in Honduras Uncovers Trove of Rare Life Forms.” Gizmodo, 21 June 2019, www.gizmodo.com.au/2019/06/exploration-of-lost-city-in-honduras-uncovers-trove-of-rare-life-forms/.