Chromolithograph from the PZSL, 3 March 1885, depicting the first Grahamstown pseudo-melanistic leopard as it would probably have looked in life, based upon its pelt's appearance (public domain)
To date, my very first book, Mystery Cats of the World, originally published in 1989 and now long out of print (but not out of copyright, incidentally), has yet to be republished. Regrettably, however, considerable chunks of its content can be found in uncredited and sometimes extensively plagiarised form on the Net within a number of websites. Consequently, unless readers of those particular sites are already familiar with my book, they will probably be entirely unaware that it is the original source of such material.
To redress at least a portion of this very unfortunate and frustrating situation, I am therefore presenting herewith the full text from my book concerning one of the most eyecatching but rarest categories of feline enigmas on record. Namely, pseudo-melanistic leopards, and their potential relevance to the identity of certain cryptozoological cats. My book was the first to document this very intriguing, thought-provoking subject in detail, including the discovery of pseudo-melanistic leopard specimens in both Asia and Africa, but once again its coverage has since been copied profusely online by others yet with very varying degrees of associated acknowledgement. I am also expanding its coverage, by incorporating some additional information and illustrations that I have encountered with regard to such cats during the period of almost 30 years that has passed since my book was published.
A MYSTERY FROM MALABAR
In certain parts of Asia, black panthers (i.e. melanistic specimens of the leopard Panthera pardus constituting a visibly distinctive morph resulting from the expression of the recessive non-agouti mutant allele of the agouti gene and described in more detail later here) are more common than the normal, spotted wild-type morph of the leopard. Conversely, pseudo-melanistic individuals from this continent are exceedingly rare, so much so in fact that I have only ever read of one confirmed specimen. It was originally documented in 1915 by H.O. Collins, as referred to fully below, within the Bulletin of the South California Academy of Science. Here is its noteworthy history.
Normal spotted wild-type version of the leopard (© JanErkamp/Wikipedia - CC BY SA 3.0 licence)
One of the magnificent and mysterious feline skins on record was purchased in December 1912 by Holdridge Ozro Collins from G.A. Chambers of Madras [now Chennai], India. Its predominant colour was an elegant glossy black and was described in 1915 by Collins as follows:
The wide black portion, which glistens like the sheen of silk velvet, extends from the top of the head to the extremity of the tail entirely free from any white or tawny hairs.
He goes on to say:
In the tiger, the stripes are black, of an uniform character, upon a tawny background, and they run in parallel lines from the center of the back to the belly. In this skin, the stripes are almost golden yellow, without the uniformity and parallelism of the tiger characteristics, and they extend along the sides in labyrinthine graceful curls and circles, several inches below the wide shimmering black continuous course of the back. The extreme edges around the legs and belly are white and spotted like the skin of a leopard....The skin is larger than that of a Leopard but smaller than that of a full grown Tiger.
The cat had been killed in Malabar, south-western India, earlier in 1912, and so unusual was its exceedingly handsome skin that Chambers had been totally unable to classify it, so that he wondered whether it could actually represent some hitherto unknown form of felid. To obtain an answer, Chambers had sent it to Madras's Government Museum for official identification. He subsequently received a letter from J.R. Henderson of the museum, who stated that, although the species was certainly leopard, it constituted a variety that he had never before seen. Collins also sought scientific advice concerning its status, and learnt from Dr Gerrit S. Miller Jnr, curator of the Smithsonian Institution's Division of Mammals in Washington DC, USA, that it was indeed a black leopard, but not of the normal melanistic type.
A normal melanistic leopard, aka black panther (© Qilinmon/Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
In fact, this remarkable skin was that of a pseudo-melanistic leopard, an extremely rare mutant known even today from only from a handful of specimens. In a normal melanistic leopard (i.e. black panther), its coat's background colour is abnormally dark, but its coat's rosettes are unchanged (so they can often still be spied in shadow-like form against its coat's dark background colouration, rather like a pattern on watered silk, when viewed at certain angles and in certain lighting conditions). Conversely, in a pseudo-melanistic leopard its coat's background colour is normal (orange-yellow) but is largely obliterated by abnormal fusion (nigrism) and multiplication (abundism) of the rosettes.
In extreme cases of pseudo-melanism, as demonstrated by Collins's specimen, this fusion and multiplication of the rosettes can be so extensive that virtually the entire upper body is covered in a solid mass of black colouration, with only occasional gaps present through which its coat's normal background colour is visible (appearing as orange streaks or spots). Faced with such a bizarre skin, it is little wonder that its owners had wondered whether it constituted a major zoological discovery.
King cheetah (© Steve Jurvetson/Wikipedia/Flickr - CC BY 2.0 licence)
Incidentally, less extreme occurrences of nigrism and abundism in the cheetah Acinonyx jubatus are responsible for the ornately striped and blotched pelage of a rare but very distinctive morph dubbed the king cheetah Acinonyx jubatus var. rex, which was once mistakenly thought to be a separate species from the normal spotted version. There are also a few visibly-comparable leopard counterparts to this cheetah variety on record, which I have duly referred to in my writings as king leopards. One Indian specimen, recorded as recently as 2012 from the Parambikulam forests in Kerala's Palakkad district, has sometimes been referred to online as a pseudo-melanistic leopard but its extent of abundism and nigrism is much less pronounced than that of the Malabar specimen or any of the Grahamstown specimens discussed below – instead, it is a classic king leopard.
A BEWILDERMENT OF BLACK LEOPARDS IN AFRICA
Surprisingly, and in stark contrast to the extremely abundant black panther of Asia, very few records exist of melanistic leopards in Africa. Considering that this latter continent has numerous localities whose habitats and climate correspond closely with those in Asia that support black panthers, the reason for this anomaly is quite obscure. In fact, the only areas from which true (i.e. non-agouti) melanistic leopards have been recorded with certainty are Ethiopia and Cameroon, plus the forests of Mount Kenya and Kenya's Aberdares mountains.
Yet, if we also take heed of the many unconfirmed reports of predominantly black, leopard-like cats from several other African regions, it would seem that African panthers of one form or another are (or were) more widespread - and varied - than science supposes.
SOUTH AFRICA'S MELANOTIC MYSTERY CATS
A mysterious felid of quite remarkable appearance was killed by a Mr F. Bowker during the early 1880s in a hilly, scrub-covered district 40 miles northeast of Grahamstown, in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province, and its flat skin was sent by him to German-born British zoologist Dr Albert Günther at London's Natural History Museum, where it remains today. Its coat's background colour was tawny, brightening to a rich orange gloss on the shoulders. Rosettes were virtually absent, being replaced mostly by numerous small separate spots, but these had coalesced dorsally to yield an unbroken expanse of black, stretching from its head right along to its tail base. In contrast to this specimen's richly hued upperparts, however, its underparts were principally white with large black spots, as in typical leopards, and it also bore the facial markings characteristic of this species. Its total length was 6 ft 7 in (including a 2.5- ft tail).
Günther had initially entertained the possibility that this singular cat was actually a naturally-occurring leopard-lioness hybrid. However, as he reported on 3 March 1885 in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (his report also containing the spectacular full-colour chromolithograph that opens this present ShukerNature blog article), Günther's detailed examination of its skin had ultimately revealed certain very specific but taxonomically significant features which, in combination with its already-noted leopard features, persuaded him that, despite its exotic colour scheme, its owner had indeed been nothing more than a leopard after all - albeit of a very spectacular pseudo-melanistic variety (and comparable with the Malabar specimen noted earlier in this ShukerNature blog article).
A year later, Günther received a second, even darker, glossier flat skin from a specimen of this same pseudo-melanistic variety, which had been shot at Collingham, approximately 20 miles from Grahamstown, and subsequently presented as a donation to London's Natural History Museum by its then-owner Reverend Nendrick Abraham (President of the Grahamstown Natural History Society). Utilising the detailed account contained in Abraham's accompanying letter, Günther formally documented this skin on 6 April 1886, once again in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London.
B/w photograph from the PZSL, 6 April 1886, of the flat skin from Abraham's Collingham-derived pseudo-melanistic leopard (public domain)
At least seven other, less striking pseudo-melanistic examples have been recorded (although, tragically, some of these no longer exist), including two pelts and sightings of two living specimens as reported by Abraham in his letter to Günther, but only from South Africa's Eastern Cape Province and none at all since the 20th Century's opening decade, as documented in 1987 by Dr Jack Skead (a former director of the Kaffrarian Museum in King William's Town) within a major review entitled Historical Mammal Incidence in the Eastern Cape. Skead's work was brought to my attention via some references to it in a CFZ Yearbook 1997 article on these exotic-looking leopards authored by Chris Moiser, who with fellow wildlife writer David Barnaby had viewed and photographed a mounted specimen at the Izoko South African Museum in Cape Town two years earlier.
In his PZSL report for 3 March 1885 concerning Bowker's pelt, Günther had dubbed this spectacular pseudo-melanistic leopard variety Felis leopardus [=Panthera pardus] var. melanotica. As a result, sometimes these extremely unusual felids are alternatively termed melanotic leopards.
As noted above, the Izoko South African Museum in Cape Town famously has on display a mounted specimen of a pseudo-melanistic leopard. In his CFZ Yearbook 1997 article, Chris Moiser revealed that this was purchased from a professional taxidermist based in Grahamstown in November 1898, and had apparently been shot 15.5 miles south of that town. Although somewhat faded with age nowadays, appearing brown rather than black, it is still visually arresting, as seen here:
The mounted pseudo-melanistic leopard on display at the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town (© Lew Viergacht)
My sincere thanks to Lew Viergacht for so kindly making his two excellent photographs of this remarkable specimen available to me for inclusion in this ShukerNature blog article.
THE DAMASIA – DARK LEOPARD OR NEW SPECIES?
Well worth considering is whether a comparable variety could be the explanation for a still-unidentified African felid known as the damasia, which dwells - not surprisingly? - in Kenya's Aberdares [already documented in my book as the home of a controversial, diminutive form of spotted lion known as the marozi, as well as melanistic leopards, i.e. black panthers].
The damasia was referred to in a letter sent to The Field by G. Hamilton-Snowball and published on 9 October 1948, concerning his sighting of spotted lions on these mountains. In it, he also recalled that during the 1920s he had shot a creature that he had taken to be a leopard, albeit a very large, dark specimen. Yet when his Kikuyu attendants saw it, they announced that it was not a chui (leopard) but a damasia, and that a damasia was as different from a leopard as a simba (lion) was from a marozi. Apparently the damasia is well known to the Aberdares natives but is always mistaken by non-locals for a leopard.
Painting of a pair of marozis or Kenyan spotted lions, based upon a preserved skin and eyewitness descriptions (© William M. Rebsamen)
Tropical Africa's native tribes frequently classify animals by way of criteria very different from those used by scientists. Often an individual animal that is of a colour or size different from that of normal specimens of the same species, or an individual that is notably more aggressive than others of its own species, is given an entirely separate name by the natives and thought of as being of a form totally different from the more typical members of its species. Therefore it is certainly possible that, despite the Kikuyus' firm denial, the damasia really is just a dark-coloured (pseudo-melanistic?) leopard.
Since genuine black (melanistic) leopards are on record from the Aberdares, it would be interesting to learn whether the natives class them as leopard or damasia. Alternatively, considering that the Aberdares' primeval forests already house one mystery cat, in the form of the marozi, it is not inconceivable that they are hiding further zoological surprises too.
THE NDALAWO – BLACK-AND-GREY CRYPTO-CAT OF UGANDA
This Ugandan mystery carnivore was described by game warden Captain William Hichens in a Discovery article of December 1937 as follows: "...a fierce man-killing carnivore, the size and shape of a leopard, but with a black-furred back shading to grey below". A ndalawo skin was actually procured on one occasion but was sent out of the country before it could receive formal scientific attention. Consequently, its identity was never ascertained, and its whereabouts are now unknown.
African wildlife authority Captain Charles Pitman had previously recorded in his book A Game Warden Among His Charges (1931) that the ndalawo seemed to be a "partly melanistic leopard" (note the word 'partly', indicating that it was not a normal black panther), practically devoid of spots but displaying a few typical leopard markings on the extremities and round the lower jaw. This more detailed description is reminiscent of that cited by Günther for P. pardus var. melanotica; certainly, pseudo-melanistic leopards have paler underparts, unlike the uniformly-dark melanistic black panthers.
Second view of the mounted pseudo-melanistic leopard at the Iziko South African Museum (© Lew Viergacht)
Based upon pelage considerations alone, it is not implausible that the ndalawo may indeed prove to be a pseudo-melanistic leopard (albeit a less showy version than those from South Africa). However, there is more than just its pelage to consider: the ndalawo exhibits some rather unexpected traits for a mere leopard. For example, it allegedly hunts in threes or fours, and whilst hunting it gives voice to a most peculiar laugh. These traits are indicative of a hyaena.
Yet as Hichens pointed out, the ndalawo is very greatly feared as an exceedingly ferocious beast, whereas even the oldest woman in a native kraal is more than prepared to shoo away a hyaena that comes too close. If the ndalawo is a form of leopard, it is a very unusual one; in fact, out of all of the black mystery cats of Africa discussed here, the ndalawo is surely the one most likely to represent a hitherto unknown felid species.
Vintage sepia photograph of the Iziko South African Museum's mounted pseudo-melanistic leopard specimen as featured in The Mammals of South Africa, Vol 1 (1900), authored by the museum's then-director, W.L. Sclater, and showing how much darker it was a century ago than it is today, light-induced fading having taken its toll down through the intervening decades (public domain); my sincere thanks to Facebook friend Velizar Simeonovski for kindly bringing this illustration to my attention.
OTHER PSEUDO-MELANISTIC BIG CATS
Pseudo-melanistic specimens have also been confirmed from other big cat species, most notably the tiger P. tigris, with several examples recorded from Similipal and elsewhere in India (although these are often referred to incorrectly as melanistic specimens by the media), as documented by me in various publications (and also here on ShukerNature).
Exquisite painting of a pseudo-melanistic tiger in life as inspired by photographs of various pseudo-melanistic tiger pelts; produced specifically for me by William M. Rebsamen, it first appeared in an article of mine published by the now-defunct British monthly magazine All About Cats in its January-February 1999 issue, then again later that same year in my book Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999) (© William M. Rebsamen)
In addition, I once saw a close-up full-colour photograph of an exceedingly handsome pseudo-melanistic jaguar in captivity, but unfortunately I have no further details concerning this specimen.
AN ARTICLE OF MINE ON PSEUDO-MELANISTIC LEOPARDS
Finally: In addition to the above coverage directly excerpted and expanded from my Mystery Cats of the World book, I have also documented pseudo-melanistic leopards (albeit only briefly this time) in my second, more recent feline-themed book, Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2011), as well as in a two-page article published by All About Cats in its May-June 1997 issue. Within that article, I was granted exclusive permission by David Barnaby and Chris Moiser to reproduce a colour photograph snapped by them in August 1995 during their viewing of the mounted specimen at the Iziko South African Museum, which I did. Regrettably, however, as with my writings about such cats, this photo has since turned up on various websites but without any accompanying credit given to David and/or Chris (hence in my opinion it seems unlikely that their permission for such sites to use it has been obtained, or even sought).
For those of you who may not have seen my All About Cats article, here it is – please click on each of its two scanned pages to enlarge it for reading purposes.
My two-page All About Cats article from May-June 1997 on the subject of pseudo-melanism and melanism in leopards and other big cats (© Dr Karl Shuker)