Over on the quizzes the issue of black leopards and panthers came up, and I had to search for the following in MAN/Magnum
hunting/shooting/firearms magazine of South Africa. Not quite what I remembered, but I may have confused problem spotted hyeana with problem black leopard, but not sure. Thought I'd share this here on the leopard thread as well, since there has bene some discussions about the Lydenburg black leopard.
I'm typing (so spelling mistakes are mine) up the letter and the editors' answer, from the November 2006 issue of MAN/Magnum
- hope you guys find it interesting:
I was returning to Cape Town via the Garden Route during October 1969. I preferred to drive at night as it was cooler and since the car I was driving (DKW) was equipped with a freewheel device; it was a petrol-saver to coast down the hills with the engine switched off. It must have been around 11pm and I was coasting down the Blaaukrantz pass when I saw a troop of baboons running and jumping across the road and disappearing down the right side of the road. I stopped the car, and as there was a bright moon in addition to the light provided by the headlights, I could see that the baboons were very agitated. Shortly after the last baboon had vanished over the edge I saw a large leopard jump down into the road, pause for a moment, and then follow the baboons. Though I could clearly see that it was a leopard, I could not understand why I could see no markings - it appeared black.
About 1998, I read a report in a magazine about a variant of African leopard found in the Eastern Cape, called the Eastern Cape Black Leopard. The report stated that they had been regularly seen in the Somerset East district. Only this year (2006) did I take the time to research it further and found to my amazement that the Blaaukrantz gorge was also listed as a refuge of the black leopard. Can you please tell me if my information is correct and if it was possible that it was actually a black leopard. DP, Eastern Cape
There is every likelihood that you did see a black leopard. This variation has been well-documented during the past century or two, throughout much of Africa and Asia, but has always been extremely rare. Grahamstown and Albany of the Eastern Cape are on record as districts where sightings have been made (R. Lydekker in Harmsworth Natural History.) Several museum specimens exist.
It seems there are variations of black leopard. Firstly, it is not a subspecies of leopard. It is a melanistic mutation, that is to say, it's just a colour thing, in the same way that you get black springbuck, and white bushbuck, etc. (White antelope are not to be confused with albinos - which also occur. Albino antelope have pink eyes and pink noses. Melanistic mutations have black eyes and noses, and are normal in every way, other than having white coats.)
A melanistic leopard has a genetic mutation that causes it to produce more black pigment (eumelanin) than yellow/gold pigment (pheomelanin.) Though this produces a largely black coat, darker rosettes can usually still be seen if you are up close and the light is right. In the wild, however, the leopard generally appears to be pitch-black. Actual pitch-black leopards and jaguars have been known to exist, but are very rare.
Variations of melanistic leopards occur, starting with a dark ginger-chocolate background, showing the black rosettes more clearly. Some backgrounds are even partially orange-gold or dark chestnut on parts of the body, and almost black elsewhere. These are known as pseudo-melanistic leopards.
There is also another so-called black leopard, but it appears that this is an 'ordinary' leopard whose spots are much denser, closer together and more numerous, making it look black in the bush. Settlers in South Africa often spoke of two 'types' or 'races' of leopard, the normal one and the 'black' leopard (denser rosettes) claiming the two to occupy different types of habitat. It is difficult to tell where melanistic leopards end, and pseudo-melanistic leopards begin - sightings are rare, and usually fleeting. However, black leopards have been bred in captivity, and it is said that a pair of black leopards will always produce black offspring. Historically the term 'panther' has been applied to black leopards, but in fact all leopards are panthers.