The iconic appearance of Panthera onca, the Jaguar, is hard to mistake - except perhaps for those who confuse it with the Leopard (there are plenty of differences, incidentally). But what many people who embark on a dedicated Jaguar safari to catch a sighting of this elusive big cat don't know is that that there are exceptions to the spectacular tawny yellow-and-black spotted coat it so stylishly sports.
The Rare Black Beauty
The Black Jaguar is also known as a Black Panther (which is a term applied to any big cat with a black coat), but, despite its strikingly different appearance, it is not a separate species from Panthera onca. While it doesn't occur too often (accounting for around 6% of the population), it's certainly not rare, and this beautiful misfit's glossy black coat is simply caused by a gene.
The big cats born with black colour morphism are referred to as melanistic: i. e. , having a surplus of melanin, the same pigment that causes humans to tan after exposure to the sun. The over-production of melanin is caused by the agouti gene, whose purpose is to regulate the amount of black pigment within each hair shaft. Interestingly, while melanism occurs in a number of big cat species (although it's not been documented in either Lions or Tigers), it is not the cause of domestic cats’ black colouring.
Note: The ‘incidence’ of the black morph puts it above that which can correctly be termed as a mutation, and some research has suggested that the alternative form of the agouti gene may actually be dominant.
Spot the Spots
Even though melanistic big cats appear to be completely black from a distance, closer inspection or catching sight of them in direct sunlight reveals that, in fact, their spots are still there. For those who manage to see one of these six-percent-ers on their Jaguar safari, it's a wonderful and unexpected privilege.
Advantage or Disadvantage?
When it comes to hunting, one might think that the black big cats have an advantage over their spotted counterparts in terms of camouflage due to their dark colouring. However, it's actually easier for prey species to see a predator with solid colouring than one with a patterned coat.
Panthera onca is crepuscular, which means it's most active in low light around dusk and dawn, so in the dappled light of the jungle its spotted coat provides the perfect cover when it's on the hunt. But it's also extremely opportunistic and is known to hunt during the day in bright light and, again, the broken pattern of its coat is a distinct advantage.
Conserving the Species
Conservationists have estimated that there are only about 600 black Jaguars existing in the wild along with their spotted compatriots as deforestation has decimated over 65% of Panthera onca's entire habitat. The popularity of dedicated Jaguar safari itineraries and other eco-tourism projects is raising the profile of this magnificent animal and the need to protect its survival, but, unfortunately, its status remains as near threatened.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Jaguar watching. Being passionate about her subject, Marissa chooses the expert-led Jaguar safari itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.