Genetic Anomalies in Wild Cats
Most school children across the world know what a lion and a tiger looks like but what if one of these magnificent animals was an unusual color or had some other strange trademark we weren't familiar with? Would we recognize what's right in front of us? Would we believe it? I don't know for certain but I do know I can venture out to begin and explain the possible phenomena which could affect wild cat species.
Albinoism is genetic flaw which gives the animal in question a lack of melanin (the pigment that gives coat, skin, and eye color to the animal.) A complete albino is one which produces no melanin at all. These animals have pure white coats, bright pink skin, and very light pink eyes. However albinoism can be a matter of degrees as not all albinos are complete, some do produce some melanin, just well below what is considered normal. These animals are born with white fur which may turn yellow as they grow older. They also can have blue eyes.
Albino animals in the wild generally die, that's why the streets aren't littered with them. The reason for this is simple, an animal with a bright white coat isn't likely to match their environment very well. When they are seen these animals are generally eaten by other animals long before adulthood. There are of course exceptions such as in very cold and snowy climates, deep in underground caves (where sight and color are not valued) or within domestic or semi-domestic populations of animals, where the protection of man is guaranteed. Albinos, particularly those with pink eyes, are subject to massive vision impairment and sunburns. This is another reason they generally don't thrive.
However complete albinoism is a dominant gene which man has long harbored a fondness for. When rats were first being domesticated they only came in their wild coloration (usually fed to dogs during ruthless rat baiting 'matches') and albino (usually saved as pets for the ladies of the day and later on kept as laboratory animals.) From these albinos hundreds of domestic colors mutated in the next two hundred years. This is the same with any set of albino animals and man has unwittingly been selectively breeding for this very trait for a long time. It probably just starts as a taste for novelty but it has the potential of expanding.
Pictured here are a pride of lions, selectively bred by mankind for... more white lions. The original two were incomplete albinos born spontaneously in a normal litter. When they were bred together this white lion pride resulted. These cats are bred and housed at the Safari Park in the UK. They're a good example of something that can occur naturally but needs man's help to thrive in larger numbers.
Melanistic and Black Cats
Jaguars are the largest species of cat in South America. Their range used to extend well into the US until farmers with their livestock and guns entered the scene. These cats are generally a yellowish orange color with thick black spotting. However somewhere along the line a black phase (melanistic) cat was born who successfully bred in the wild and created a substantial population of black jaguars, also known as black panthers. These cats aren't solid black, rather they are black with even darker black spots on them that you're not likely to see unless you're close enough to get eaten. Still, it happens, without our help and is probably more abundant then we realize.
Black is a mutation that at first happens spontaneously, born to two parents with agouti genes (this would be the normal coloration of the animal in question.) Unlike the albinos melanistic cats often have the upper hand, a new camouflage to ease the pursuit of prey. Although it's only well recorded in jaguars and leopards there is much speculation that cougars, and possibly some others, may also have a black phase roaming around somewhere. Reports of large black cats stalking farms have become popular in the US and the same story can be heard retold around the world. Most serious scientists and researchers are naysayers to this phenomena, saying it's people exaggerating or an escaped zoo animal. Looking into a 'cryptid' (an animal who may or may not exist) can be a career killer for these people so they stay well enough away. That's not to say something might be going on here.
The story is complicated in the US. Much of the US is populated by cougars, which even geneticists have to begrudgingly admit can occasionally throw a black cub in a spontaneous litter. There has been some speculation that because of human encroachment the black cougar, which may have been at a disadvantage before, may be out there stalking civilization, eating livestock and pets, and reproducing. It's not beyond the realm of possibilities. Of course since jaguars were known to once exist in the Southern states there's also the possibility a black panther may have cross bred with a cougar at some point in time when a mate of their own species couldn't be found in the area. This hybridization is possible and has been done in captivity. A third option could be a panther kept as a pet was released into the wild, unwittingly or not. In any event black-phase is a natural coloration and has been well documented to thrive within the wild jaguar population.
A Quick Run Down of what "Black Panther" can Mean
There have been rumored to be blue tigers in existence in the wild for a long time. Mythology related to these creatures is popular, especially in the Fujian Providence of China. Theoretically speaking blue tigers could exist (as the blue gene is well documented in domestic cats) but there has only been one specimen born in Caldwell Zoo in the 1960s that has been captive proof. This tiger displayed the characteristics of the famed blue tiger in that it had a gray coat with darker gray stripes. Since tigers are very endangered there is little hope that these rare beauties still exist in the wild. They've likely gone extinct before we had the chance to document them.
King Cheetahs were first documented in the early 1990s as a wild mutation. A male cheetah started showing himself to people who realized rather quickly that he didn't look quite right. Instead of dainty little spots this cat had long chains of black splotches. It wasn't long before he was captured and put into a captive breeding population where he spawned more king cheetahs that are now being sold to zoos and private collectors. This mutation may or may not have caught on in the wild without human intervention. For all we know there could have been random croppings of king cheetahs every few dozen generations.
Educational Presentation of a King Cheetah
Saber Tooth Cat
Saber tooth cats are the stuff of nightmares, the beasts who hunted our primitive ancestors, right? Probably, but to consider them extinct is just silly. Of course the great Saber Tooth Tigers who gave us a run for our money are extinct but the gene that causes overgrown saber-like teeth is one that all cats still carry. In fact saber tooth cats have existed, evolved, gone extinct, and then cropped up again dozens of times before. We'd be unwise to relax now when there's evidence a new breed of saber tooth is evolving once again with this throwback gene. A small wild Asian Cat is now showing slightly enlarged front teeth. It's speculated that left on it's own these cats may evolve to have increasingly larger teeth until we have a small saber-toothed cat living among us again. It's an interesting possibility.