Melanism in Cats

TCWR is home to two black cats. They are not black panthers. One is a black leopard, and one is […]

TCWR is home to two black cats. They are not black panthers. One is a black leopard, and one is a black jaguar. Our black cats have a condition called melanism. Melanism is the overproduction of black or dark coloration in fur and skin. We see it in 11 of the 37 wild cat species. Out of the species TCWR has, our leopards, jaguars, servals, and bobcats can be melanistic.

Melanism is a natural occurrence in a variety of species. Melanism in cats has developed about four separate times. In most cases, it’s a recessive trait. This means that for a cat to be black, both of its parents have to be black or carry a black gene. In one case, jaguars, melanism is a dominant trait. This means that for a jaguar to be black, only one parent has to be black or carry a black gene. Jaguars are completely unique in this way. 

One theory for melanism developing in cats is that it is connected to their environment. Studies show that black leopards are most often found in rainforests in Asia rather than in dry, arid habitats. In a dark and shaded environment like a rainforest, a darker coat pattern would make more sense. A black leopard would be able to camouflage better. A black leopard would also be able to thermoregulate or control their heat, better. In hot, sunny environments, a black cat would be at a disadvantage because they would absorb more heat and become hotter, and faster. In cooler, wet environments, the black coloration may be beneficial for keeping cats cool and making heat regulation easier and less energy-consuming.

Wild cats use white markings for intraspecies communication. Cats like leopards and servals have white spots on the back of their ears to deter predators or attackers, often of their own species. Melanistic cats lose these white markings. A recent study has determined that melanism in species may have developed from certain favorable traits. They saw melanism in cats that aren’t just nocturnal. Their dark color would make it hard for them to communicate at night. They also determined that melanistic individuals rely on non-melanistic individuals for communication. Behavior is an important factor in the study of melanism developing in cat species.

Cats in captivity are often specifically bred to be black in color. People can make a lot of money from “rare” black cats. Like our white tigers, it can lead to inbreeding and negative health effects. We are lucky to have two healthy black cats. While they are a beauty, it is better for the melanistic individuals in a population to occur naturally, not to be actively bred. 

When you visit TCWR, see if you can find our two black cats! They’re easy to spot!



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