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'Invisible' Black Leopard Spots Finally Revealed [PHOTOS]

Jul 19, 2015 08:43 PM EDT
Black panther spots

(Photo : © Rimba Research Malaysia)

Believe it or not, there is no true species of 'black panther' stalking the dark jungles of the world. Often, they are unusual variants of cougars, jaguars, or even leopards. This certainly holds true for the Malaysian black panther - leopards with sleek black coats and, oddly enough, invisible black spots. Now researchers have determined how to make the unseen seen - a boon for conservation.

"This is perhaps the only known example of a wild mammal with virtually an entire population composed of black individuals and scientists have no idea why it predominates in the Malay Peninsula," Laurie Hedges, a researcher with The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC), explained in a recent statement.

According to the scientist, all that's known about this coloration is that it's caused by melanism - a genetic tweak that causes the overdevelopment of the pigment melanin in the skin. The opposite of albinism, melanism is usually rare, randomly popping out all manner of black cats - from the lanky and iconic grey-and-black jaguar to the near-mythological black lion.

Stranger still, while the genetic information that carries melanism for jaguars is actually a dominant trait - leading to some exciting spotted cat colorations - the jet black panthers we see among Malaysian leopards (Panthera pardus) are the product of a recessive allele. (Scroll to read on...)

A black leopard investigates a camera trap.
(Photo : © Rimba Research Malaysia) A black leopard investigates a camera trap. Note it's spots are only visible in direct sunliught.

And while we may never know for sure why this trait became so wide-spread in Malaysian forests, Hedges and other experts do know that it makes surveying the regions' leopards really-really hard.

Imagine, if you will, trying to count needles in a haystack. That certainly is hard enough, but now let's add that you can't actually touch these needles. Instead, they get to shift around in the hay, relocating even moments after being discovered. Perhaps if each needle was different in some way - be it length, a bend, or coloration - this task would at least be possible; but no, each and every one of these needles are the same uniform dusky black. Now tell me how many there are, and based on that observation, we will determine what steps should be taken to protect needle-kind.

Hedges explained, that while leopard-kind is globally near-threatened, with deforestation and trapping being their biggest obstacles, Malaysia's unique leopards are rare enough to be assumed locally endangered. But how endangered remains unclear.

"Understanding how Malaysia's leopards are faring in an increasingly human-dominated world is vital," he said.

So how does one tell apart a legion of seemingly identical black panthers? According to a study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, you count their 'invisible' spots. (Scroll to read on...)

Caught on camera! A black leopard shows it's spots in a specially modified camera trap.
(Photo : © Rimba Research Malaysia) Caught on camera! A black leopard shows it's spots in a specially modified camera trap.

Sure these panthers might seem completely black, but they still are leopards - animals characterized by spot patterns as unique as snowflakes. Hedges and his colleagues theorized that because the black of these animals' spots would be different than their coats, they would reflect light differently. All that was needed to be done then, was to rig wildlife camera's to always use an infrared flash. And viola! Suddenly each and every leopard spotted looked... spotted!

"We found we could accurately identify 94 per cent of the animals," added co-author Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, of James Cook University. "This will allow us to study and monitor this population over time, which is critical for its conservation."

Now the researchers hope to use this technique to track individual black panther's in particular - learning about their ranges and perhaps identifying parts of Malaysia most heavily assailed by illegal poaching.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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