As an iconic member of the big cat family, it’s been immortalized down through the ages. It’s touched our culture in varied ways. We allegorize, analogize and identify with this unique feline creature. We compare it to the human condition in art, folklore, and novels. There was even a political action group called the Black Panther Party which was active during the black protest movement of the 60s and 70s. There are sport teams, comics and of course a superhero and new blockbuster movie, breaking all records at the box office.
However, as much as we are infatuated with all things ‘black panther,’ in actuality this famous wildlife creature isn’t even its own individual species.
Agouti Gene & Melanin
That’s right a “black panther” is not a species at all. It’s an umbrella term that refers to any big cat with a black coat. The condition is caused by the ‘agouti gene,’ which regulates the distribution of black pigment within the hair shaft, according to the University of California, Davis. According to Big Cat Rescue, the color black is created as the result of a surplus of melanin, the same pigment responsible for suntans.
It's more well known in leopards, which roam the jungles of Asia and Africa, and jaguars, which inhabit South America.
Patrick Thomas, general curator of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Bronx Zoo [which is home to two black leopards] notes other wild cats can have melanism. However, it Thomas’ belief that there are not cases of lions with this condition.
Stories of black lions have been rumored for some time. Several images of black lions have gone viral on the Internet. But, do black lions really exist? BestAnimal World and other animal advocacy groups agree with Thomas — they do not!
A partially black lion was found in Glasgow, Scotland recently. Residing in a zoo, the color however was more likely due to somatic mosaicism [abnormal skins cells] than melanin.
Blackness in Black Panther, the movie
The origin of the movie 'Black Panther' date back to a comic book first conceived in 1966. While the theme seems like a flashpoint, it’s really one of several cultural benchmarks we’ve witnessed down through the ages, where humans have identified with the big black cat.
The “blackness” epitomized by the black panther underscores the power behind color. It’s a celebration of America’s black culture that’s reinforced by a number of film productions — “Black-ish,” and “Atlanta” on TV and ‘Get Out’ and ‘Girls Trip’ on the big screens.
Identifying with the black panther is like an “exclamation point” emphasizing the power of the cat that’s continuing to shape our collective worldview. And it doesn’t matter if the animal flops as an individual species. In fact, in its generalization, it goes beyond black stereotypes to embrace the power of blackness on a metaphysical level — touching a wide swath of humanity.
Primary Source: National Geographic