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Are US 'Black Panthers' Actually Jaguarundi?
by Chester Moore, Jr.

"Black panthers" exist in the United States.

This isn't a theory, hypothesis or hallucination, but a verifiable, undeniable fact.

No, science hasn't discovered a new cat species or a population of melanistic (black) cougars to explain alleged "black panther" sightings. They haven't even captured a black leopard that escaped from one of those circus train wrecks skeptics of cryptozoology so often speak of.

Yes, there are "black panthers" in the United States but believing in their existence doesn't require a leap of faith. It just calls for a new look at a known species: the jaguarundi.

The jaguarundi (Felis yagouaroundi) is known to range from South America to Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. And although not widely known by the public, jaguarundis are prime candidates for spawning "black panther" reports.

They are a medium-sized cat with a mean body size of 102 centimeters for females and 114 for males according to Mexican researcher Arturo Caso. Other sources list them as ranging from 100 to 120 centimeters with the tail making up the greatest part of the length.

Most specimens are about 20 centimeters tall and sport a dark gray color while others are chocolate brown or blonde.

A large jaguarundi crossing a road in front of a motorist or appearing before an unsuspecting hunter could easily be labeled a "black panther". Since very few people are aware of jaguarundis, it's highly unlikely they would report seeing one. The term "black panther" is quick and easy to report to others.

Everyone can relate to a "black panther".

North of the border

Jaguarundis are known to range from South America to the Mexican borders of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. The key word here is "known". That means scientists have observed or captured the species within those areas, however they are reported to range much farther north in the Lone Star State and perhaps elsewhere.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) officials solicited information from the public and received numerous reports of the species in the 1960s, including several sightings from central and east Texas. Additional sightings were reported from as far away as Florida, Oklahoma, and Colorado

In a study conducted in 1984, TPWD biologists noted a string of unconfirmed jaguarundi sightings in Brazoria County, which corners the hugely populated areas of both Houston and Galveston.

Brazoria County is more than 200 miles north of the counties of Cameron and Willacy, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has designated as being the only confirmed areas of Texas that houses jaguarundis.

This is even more interesting when considering what TPWD biologist Terry Turney has to day.

Turney is now an endangered species biologist in Kendall County but spent the early part of his career in Port Arthur, Texas managing the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area (WMA). On this 30,000-acre tract of mixed coastal prairie and marsh according to Turney is a population of jaguarundis.

"While I worked the Murphree Area one of the workers had seen three of them and the ranchers around the area as well as other members of the Murphree crew saw them fairly frequently. It was "those little gray cats" to them," Turney said.

"I had two of them in my neighborhood near Houston in the late 70s and the dogs would tree them every couple of weeks. They're about the most secretive critters around," he added.

The J.D. Murphree WMA is more than 300 miles north of the Service's estimated range. How is it that state workers are seeing these cats in Port Arthur while the official word is they're only in the southern extremities of Texas?

In my opinion this is a great oversight by federal biologists who wrongly believe this cat to only inhabit a specific type of habitat. Jaguarundis are listed as an endangered species by the Service and full under federal jurisdiction. And for the most part what the Feds say goes with endangered species.

A study conducted by Arizona and federal scientists states that jaguarundi habitat, especially in South Texas, includes dense, thorny thickets of mesquite and stunted acacias known as chaparral. It also state less than one percent of this type of habitat is left along the US-Mexican border.

That's true but jaguarundis are known to live in a variety of habitats, including rainforests, prairie, deciduous forests and marshland. It could very well be that very few jaguarundis live in that zone because of a lack of habitat. Most of that area has been converted to farmland. The game and habitat-rich areas along the Texas coast along with the Pineywoods and Hill Country region however is housing a population of jaguarundis that have slipped under the radar screen of federal officials.

How far do they range?

If there's any validity to the 1960s TPWD report, sightings have been recorded in several states bordering Texas. Since TPWD biologists say the cats are present in Port Arthur, which rests on the Texas-Louisiana border then it's likely the cats also inhabit that state. It's also possible they could range into Oklahoma and Arkansas. Gauging how far they might range throughout New Mexico and Arizona is more difficult because there have been few studies conducted there. Their ability to survive in solid desert is also questionable.

Florida has a resident population of jaguarundis that were imported into that state in the 1940s. Since the cats are so secretive it's difficult to gauge their population status, but it is generally believed to be healthy.

This begs the question of how far those transplanted cats have spread? Are they now in Georgia and Alabama, two states that have frequent "black panther" sightings?

More research needs to go into this matter.

Personal research

My interest in the jaguarundi connection to "black panther" sightings comes from a sighting that took place in the summer of 2001 near Port Arthur, Texas. At around 9 a.m. while driving in a rural area I witnessed a long, slender, gray-colored animal emerging from the brush on the side of the road at a distance of about 75 yards. When I approached to within 30 yards the animal slowly walked in the middle of the road and crossed into a brushy area on the other side. Having worked with more than 11 species of wild cats at the Exotic Cat & Wildlife Refuge in Kirbyville, Texas and spent time observing the cats at the Texas Zoo in Victoria I immediately identified the cat as a jaguarundi.

I was shocked at what I had seen, but remembered a local minister telling me about a biologist at the J.D. Murphree WMA, (which was less than a miles from where this sighting took place) seeing jaguarundis. That biologist was Terry Turney.

I returned to the area several times and have been able to cast a number of tracks. Jaguarundis have a footpad that is slightly different from the bobcat, which also inhabits the area, and after several comparisons to bobcat casts I have made it's obvious that at least some of the tracks are of jaguarundi origin.

Several of the tracks were made in a damp area and have absolutely perfect definition so an adequate review of field guide diagrams and photos of tracks taken in Mexican was made. The footpad of some of the others is too vague for me to give a positive identification.

The best track by the way was found less than 150 yards from where I saw the cat in 2001.

At the time of this writing a Buckshot 35 motion-sensing camera has been put on a trail where the most recent tracks were found. I'm hoping a jaguarundi will step in front of it and give photographic evidence of this fascinating feline ranging more than 300 miles from where federal managers say it lives.

Chester Moore points to a jaguarundi track near the area where he
saw one. That's a Petersen's Field Guide in his hand. Jaguarundis have a
slightly different foot pad than bobcats and domestic cats and Moore is
meticulous about positively identifying animal sign.



In conclusion

Is the jaguarundi responsible for all "black panther" reports in the United States? That's not likely.

Are they the source of many sightings in the South and Southwest? There is no doubt in my mind.

Besides the obvious physical characteristics that match them to "black panther" sightings there are some habits of the species that also lend credence to this theory.

Jaguarundis are diurnal meaning they hunt mostly in daylight hours and this goes along with many reportings I have collected of "black panthers."

Several eyewitnesses insisted the cat they saw wasn't a cougar or bobcat because they saw it in the middle of the day. They said they got a good look at a dark, long-tailed cat. Bobcats and cougars are chiefly nocturnal while the jaguarundi is a daylight dweller.

Looking back it's funny that for years I lamented at never seeing one of the "black panthers" I so frequently gathered reports of. It seemed as if I was living in a Mecca for mystery cat sightings, but a glimpse of the cat itself always eluded me.

Then I saw a jaguarundi cross the road in front of me. It took a little researching and thinking time for it to sink in, but I finally figured out I had seen a black panther.

It just came in a slightly different package than I was expecting.

Here's a jaguarundi track with a quarter for comparison.





Chester Moore's web site dealing with cryptozoology can be found at www.cryptokeeper.com. You can e-mail him at ibill@cryptokeeper.com.

References

Caso, Arturo. Personal interview. 5, Feb. 2002.

Mabie, D.W. 1984. Feline Status Study. Ann. Perf. Report. Fed. Aid Proj. No. W-103-R-14, Job 12, Texas Parks and Wildl. Dept., Austin. 3pp.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1985. Technical Draft: Recovery Plan for the Listed Cats of Arizona and Texas. U.S. Fish and Wildl. Serv., Albuquerque, NM. 65 pp

Turney, Terry. Personal interview. 23, Jan. 2002

Tewes, M.E. and D.D. Everett. 1985. Status and distribution of the Endangered ocelot and jaguarundi in Texas. Internat. Wildlife Symposium, Kingsville, TX.

Hock, R.J. 1955. Southwestern exotic felids. Amer. Midland Nat. 53:324-328.

Davis, W.B. 1974. The mammals of Texas. Texas Parks and Wildlife. Bull. No. 41. 252 pp.



2002 Chester Moore, Jr.