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.
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
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.
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
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.
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).
Dr Albert Günther (public domain)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)