Black or Melanistic Tigers

Black Tigers - 1: Introduction To Melanism | 2: Early Evidence Of Black Tigers | 3&4: The C.T. Buckland Black Tiger Story |
5: Black Tigers Of Similipal Tiger Reserve | 6: A Colour Image!


Introduction to melanism:

Melanin is the dark pigmentation which is responsible for the tanning process which occurs in humans when they're exposed to sunlight. In people it is actually a reaction to damage of the skin cells. A melanistic animal has an increased amount of this black or nearly black pigmentation in the skin, feathers, hair, or other outer tissues.

Melanism is the opposite of albinism and occurs with about the same frequency. The genetic basis is not clearly understood, but inbreeding is considered partially responsible.

It is very common in some species, and is bred for in others. For instance, reptile breeders aim for the unusual colours that result from an excess of melanin.

Melanistic lions:

In lions there have only been two reasonably reliable reports of black specimens.

The first came from archaeologist Sir Henry Layard during his time in Persia. The lion was described as "very dark brown in colour, in parts almost black." The lion is now extinct in Persia and the accuracy of the report will forever remain unknown.

In the other case a partly black lion was captive bred, but his colouration was probably due more to mosaicism (abnormal skin cells) rather than melanism. He was infertile so did not produce offspring.

Other very vague claims of reddish and chocolate brown lions also exist, but these are all unsubstantiated. The African lion on this page is unusually dark for that big cat but does not display melanism.

Black panthers:

Probably the best-known cats in which melanism occurs frequently are the black leopards and jaguars.

The gene for melanism is recessive so melanistic cubs can be born to normally coloured parents and mixed litters containing both black and yellow-brown cubs are common.

These cats occur so often that many people mistakenly think they are a separate subspecies. As a result the name 'black panther' has been coined for them. To further add to the confusion, 'panther' is a term used for the puma.

The occurrence of melanism in leopards and jaguars does not hinder the animal in any way. Unlike albinism which makes animals stand out to predators and prey, melanism assists the concealment of jaguars and leopards on their night hunting raids.

Melanistic leopards and jaguars retain clear evidence of their rosettes and spots. This excess of melanin does not produce jet black cats and the examples you see on this page are actually a very dark brown. Photography will not often display the markings unless the cat is brightly lit and the angle of reflection correct.

Solid black cats:

In normal circumstances there are no solid black big cats. An exception to this was recorded by cryptozoologist Karl Shuker who documented one isolated case in which a leopard's black spots coalesced to make the pelage a solid black.

Another much lesser incidence of this was reported to Tiger Territory. In the second example the spots around the shoulder and upper back area had coalesced to form large solid areas, while the rest of the jaguar (around the hindquarters) was spotted in the usual manner. It was difficult to clearly photograph this cat due to the cage between jaguar and photographer. A graphically altered image is displayed above. The bars and original zoo background have been painstakingly removed. 

Black servals:

Black servals  are little known, but they are found in the Aberdare mountains of Kenya. Most of the servals in this region are black and it is thought the colour is an adaptation to help retain body heat in this cold mountainous area. The black colouration does occur very occasionally in servals from other places, but is rare.

The Aberdare mountains are also famous for the very mysterious, perhaps mythical, marozi (spotted lion) which is extensively covered under the hybrids section of this site.

Black Tigers - 1: Introduction To Melanism | 2: Early Evidence Of Black Tigers | 3&4: The C.T. Buckland Black Tiger Story |
5: Black Tigers Of Similipal Tiger Reserve | 6: A Colour Image!

History of the White Tiger | White Tigers | Albinos | Golden Tabbies | Black Tigers | Maltese (Blue) |
Red, Brown & Orange Tigers | White Lions

Colourations Index | Home

Photography With Thanks To Denise McQuillen (Photos 1-2)
The Feline Conservation Center (Photos 2-3)
William M. Rebsamen (Photo 5)
All Rights Reserved. Displayed here with permission, for educational, non-profit purposes.