Black Panthers: Cats of Mistaken Identity

One of the biggest misconceptions about North Carolina wildlife is the existence of cougars, or black panthers, in our state. The cougar is a big cat known by many names including panther, mountain lion, puma and up to 80 more, but these are all the same species, Puma concolor


Cougar caught on an eMammal camera trap as part of the Museums Connect Mexico project.

Although cougars are sometimes called panthers, "black panther" is not a name that can be attributed to this species. This is a blanket term for any large cat with a black coat due to a gene that produces a dark pigment. Mammals with this mutation are known as melanistic. In big cats, black panthers are actually jaguars or leopards. If you look closely enough, or have enough bright light, you can see spots amongst the dark fur. There has never been a confirmed or documented case of a melanistic mountain lion in the United States. Mistaken identities may also occur with the cougar's smaller relative, the bobcat. Bobcats can be melanistic too, but this is extremely rare with only 12 reported sightings across all of North America

melanistic jaguar

A melanistic jaguar. Notice that you can still see spots! Photo by Ron Singer:

The cougar ranges across Western North America, Central and South America. Due to overhunting in the United States, they have been completely extirpated from the east, with the exception of the endangered Florida panther, a subspecies occurring in southern Florida. They were officially deemed extinct in North Carolina in 2011 and are believed to have gone extinct as early as the 1930’s.

Despite their extirpation from the east, there are hundreds of reports each year to state and federal wildlife agencies of cougar and black panther sightings. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that most sightings turn out to be bobcats, but also bears, deer, domestic cats, or dogs. Still, many people remain unconvinced and claim to have seen the species dash across the road at night and even to have had face-to-face encounters.


A curious cougar checks out a camera trap in Peperpot Nature Park, Suriname.

In 2011, a male cougar was indeed killed by a vehicle in Connecticut. However, it is important to note the difference between an established population and dispersing individuals. Dispersing individuals are males looking for new terrirories, and in the case of large carnvirores, can sometimes travel extremely long distances. These sightings alone are not enough to conclude that there is a population of cougars in the eastern United States. An established population must include males, females, and their offspring, and there has been no concrete evidence (camera trap or handheld camera photos) to demonstrate that a population exists in our state. 

How to Distinguish a Cougar from Other Cats:

Cougars are tan or slightly yellow in color, large, and have a long tail. Individuals range from five to eight feet in length and weigh 80-180 pounds (females are smaller). Standing next to a six foot man, the cougar would be roughly waist high. Their thick tail is one of their most distinct features - it can be as long or longer than its body and typically ends in a darker patch of fur.


Cougar from the eMammal Sumaco Cloud Forest Project.

The most common cat to be mistaken for a cougar is the bobcat. Bobcats are much smaller, but roughly twice the size of a housecat, weighing up to 40 pounds once full grown. Its fur is short, thick, and soft, ranging in color from light brown to reddish brown, and is usually spotted. There are patches of white on the back of the ears. The most distinguishing feature of the bobcat, and its name sake, is its short tail. 


Bobcat captured on an eMammal camera trap. Notice the shorter "bobbed" tail and overall smaller size.

Believe it or not, house cats are also mistaken for mountain lions. House cats can be similar in coloring to a cougar and have long tails; however, they are much, much smaller. 

domestic cat

House cats captured on camera trap in Raleigh. House cats are much, much smaller than cougars.

Think you're ready to identify a cougar? Take this quiz to test your skills on spotting a cougar among the other cats.

Authors: Alexus Berndt and Stephanie Schuttler