Why Are Black Leopards So Rare?
by Riley Black/Smithsonian.com
Black leopards are mysterious cats. With a rare variation of the generally spotted carnivore’s coat, they blend into the shadows and are nearly invisible in the dark. But the black fur that provides a boost to sneakiness could come with a cost to communication—and new research may explain why wild, all-black cats are relatively rare.
The black color variants of cats like leopards, jaguars and ocelots are known by experts as “melanism.” Over the years, researchers have come up with a handful of hypotheses to explain why some wild cat species have these darker coats. The black cats are likely better concealed at night, but the variant may also allow cats to warm faster in the sun or even ward off certain parasites. But the trouble with being an all-black cat, a new study in PLOS ONE suggests, is that markings critical to feline communication get obscured.
Melanistic cats are not as black as a moonless night. Often, their spots are still visible. But black leopards, jaguars and other wild cats lack the white markings on their ears and tails that other members of their species often use to signal to each other.