A couple of weeks ago a reader contacted me saying that he thought his game camera might have captured a photo of a black panther. This gentleman lives out in the Hill Country and had his camera overlooking a deer feeder near his home. The reader attached two photos, one of the animal in question and one of some deer underneath the feeder. The deer photo was meant to provide some idea of scale. The original photos are below.
The animal in the photo is unquestionably a cat of some kind. In addition, the cat is black or, at the very least, an extremely dark brown. Despite the photo being snapped at night there can be no doubt about that. This is no tawny-colored mountain lion. A long, thick tail is clearly visible. This long tail effectively squelches any arguments that this is a bobcat. So, if it isn’t a cougar and it isn’t a bobcat…what is it?
As has been discussed here before, officially, black panthers do not exist. Science tells us that there is simply no such animal. It is true that other big cats occasionally exhibit melanism but they do not make their homes in North America. Leopards live in Africa and jaguars live in South and Central America. Black bobcats have occasionally been observed in North America and could account for some black panther sightings; however, once a witness describes a long tail, often almost as long as the cat’s body, the bobcat ceases to be a legitimate candidate. So, what are people seeing? What animal does this photo show?
The debate on what people are seeing and identifying as black panthers has been discussed here before. I’ll refer you to an article called “Lost Bears and Black Panthers” I posted back in August of 2009. In it, I discussed four candidates for the black panthers of Texas. Below is an excerpt from that post that discusses these four possibilites:
"So, what are people seeing? There are several possibilities, in my opinion. The first possibility is simply that cougars can sometimes be black. This is a well-documented trait in jaguars and leopards. Scientists have yet to see it in cougars but that doesn't mean it doesn't occur. The second possibility is that jaguars still roam the state. Texas was once part of the jaguar's natural range. The last known jaguar in Texas was killed in Brownwood in the 1940s. It is thought they may still haunt the state's southern border but are not thought by wildlife experts to range into central or east Texas. One more possible candidate for the black panther sightings is the jaguarundi. The jaguarundi is a relative of the cougar but much smaller. It averages between 30 and 45 inches long and can be dark in color though, it is thought, not black. A final possibility is that there is simply an undocumented species of large black cat roaming not only Texas but other areas of the country as well."
Do any of these candidates match up to what we see in the photo? Possibly. The problem is one of scale. At first glance the cat in the photo seems to be quite large but upon further inspection maybe not. I wanted an additional opinion so I sent the photo to Chester Moore. Moore is an accomplished outdoors writer and naturalist. His Cryptokeeper website was one of my favorite sites on the internet and helped inspire me to starts a site of my own. He is currently heading up a camera-trapping project called Southern Panther Search with Terri Werner of Tiger Creek Refuge and Animal Planet’s “Growing Up Tiger.” Moore’s thoughts are below:
Thanks so much for sending the photo.
It is hard to get perfect scale on the cat because the position of camera in the cat shot is different than the deer shot.
The deer closes to the camera looks like a yearling doe (first year) so it is not that big of a deer.
The animal in the photo is definitely a cat and it looks the closest to a jaguarundi of any known species. It is definitely not a jaguar (no spot pattern found on the coat. Messed with it in photo shop and you could pull some spots by messing with contrast and lighting and none show) or a cougar. The body position and short legs point to jaguarundi along with the dark color.
The cat looks a little fat to me which is what threw me off. Cougar and jags are both muscular but this cat is not. Jaguarundis are not a muscular cat and after reviewing a photo of a pregnant jaguarundi it looks like that might be the case. There are definitely jaguarundis in the Hill Country despite what officials say and this is the time of year many of our predators are pregnant."
I agree that the jaguarundi is a good candidate for the cat in the photo. Moore’s points are well taken. There is only one point on which I disagree with Moore and that is his opinion that the camera was not in the same location for the two provided photos. I think the overlay below shows that the camera was in the same location for both photos. Even if I’m wrong on this, the location is not significantly different and doesn’t drastically change much of anything, in my opinion.
If this is a jaguarundi it is a pretty good find. According to the Mammals of Texas – Online Edition, “Jaguarundis live in the brush country of extreme south Texas in Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy counties – where it is rare.” They aren’t supposed to be in the Hill Country of Texas. Then again, they aren’t supposed to be in east Texas either and Moore himself says that he has seen one near Lake Sam Rayburn.
Moore is right in that the photo simply doesn’t show enough detail to be able to say definitively what this cat might be. In addition, after studying the photo and looking at about a dozen different models of feeders at a Gander Mountain store this past weekend in an effort to better judge the size of the cat, I’ve come to the conclusion that the cat in the photo is likely not large enough to be a cougar or jaguar. I realize it could be a juvenile but the dearth of any black cougar specimens and the lack of florets, or spots, on the cat in the photo (florets are almost always still visible even on melanistic jaguars), in my opinion, lends credence to my opinion. That leaves two possibilities: a jaguarundi or a domestic/feral cat.
I don’t really believe that this cat is a domestic. I think it is too big for that. I think the animal in the photo is most likely a jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi). If so, it is an exciting development. If the cat is pregnant, as Chester Moore suggested, then that is even more exciting. Not only would there be a jaguarundi where it is not supposed to be but there would be a breeding population of jaguarundis in a region where they are not officially recognized.
Please keep sending in your accounts of black panther sightings and any photos you might capture. Pieces of anecdotal evidence like this could help people like me know where to investigate and best place their cameras. This, in turn, could lead to the clear video footage or photograph that could prove these large cats do exist and roam the Lone Star State.
Again, let’s work together and get this done.