Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.
Mutant Big Cats: Genetic Mutations Seen in Wild Cats
Most school children across the world know what lions and tigers look 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've listed here a few of the most well-known types of wild cats whose appearances are affected by genetic abnormalities.
5 Types of Genetic Anomalies in Wild Cats
- Maltese Tigers
- King Cheetahs
- Saber-Toothed Cats
Albinism is a genetic flaw that 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 that produces no melanin at all. These animals have pure white coats, bright pink skin, and very light pink eyes.
However, albinism 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 its 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 protection by man is guaranteed. Albinos, particularly those with pink eyes, are also subject to massive vision impairment and sunburns. This is another reason they generally don't thrive.
Complete albinism is a dominant gene that 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.
Pictured here above is a pride of lions selectively bred by mankind for their albinism. 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.
2. Melanism and Black Cats
Jaguars are the largest species of cat in South America. Their range used to extend well into the US until farmers entered the scene with their livestock and guns. These cats are generally a yellowish-orange color with thick black spotting. Somewhere along the line, however, 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 happened without our help and is probably more abundant than 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 other cats, 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 phenomenon, 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 isn't 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 possibility.
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.
3. Maltese Tigers
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.
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4. King Cheetahs
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 on a King Cheetah
5. Saber-Toothed Cat
Sabertooth 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 their 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.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
acorniv on October 14, 2009:
I found this page while researching anomalies in domestic cats. It's an interesting piece - thank you.
I am a foster volunteer for the Humane Society and have adopted three cats with unusual (two with very rare) anomalies. Anomalies in cats are an offshoot of irresponsible pet care in modern society. Unspayed/unneutered cats that are allowed to roam often end up mating with close relatives (often their own grown kittens. That creates mutations, as does poor prenatal care, and illneses ( especially viruses) contracted by the poorly cared for mother cat. This is something that, so far as I have been able to discover, has never been discussed in a public forum. I've read enough to know that anomalies don't happen nearly as often in healthy cats, so IMO there is urgent need to educate people about it. We could conceivably get to the point where healthy kittens will be a rarity, because alley cats are becoming as inbred as in the worst catteries.
I foster kittens that have health problems, most of which are caused by the dismal start they got in life. The first kitten I fostered came to me when he was 3 weeks old, after having been taped up in a box with 13 other cats and left to die in the sun for two days. He was the lone survivor, but we know nothing else about his past or the other cats. He had asthma and a weak back end, which we believe came from having come from a very large litter. It is possible the 13 other cats were just his mom and 12 siblings. He is huge with extremely long dark orange fur - his arms look like an orangatan's, with guard hairs as long as 6". He just started developing vitiligo, and is now white on his right front paw and tail tip. He has the same odd personality of a Turkish Van and the same tail base that looks like it was tacked on as an after thought. We know the likely hood of his having Turkish Van genes are about nil, but we wonder if he may have mutated in a similar way to them. We also wonder if he will get the lacy pattern form of vitiligo or if he will only lose color on his face, paws and tail - the same places Turkish Van's are white.
I took on Bambilu, a tortieshell manx with a corkscrew tail, this past June. Due to ongoing health problems she is still with us (mid October). She was tiny, and looked like a 3 week old kitten when we got her, but we thought she was probably about twice that, and small due to being malnourished. She'd been hanging out in a church yard for two weeks without anyone helping her in any way when the minister finally had the decency to bring her in. When I got her she was emaciated and I suspected parasites. So far she has tested positive and been treated ( and retreated) for giardia, coccidosis, round worms hookworms, and of course she was covered with fleas. It is now mid October and she has never not been on some form of drug for these. She has finally began growing and gaining weight, so we think we're finally winning the battle. Bambilu's tail is a tight corkscrew, which she shakes like a deer tail. With her slight build, twitchy tail and fawn like mannerisms, she looks exactly like a foot high deer if you look out the corner of your eye. Corkscrew tails are rare, especially when they twist as tightly as hers, but that tail has an ever rarer anomaly. It has begun to grow a boneless fleshy tail off the end of the neatly twisted skeletal bun. The pad is currently 1.5" long but if it continues to grow it will hang like a turkey noodle off her rump.
We've also got a manx with a 3" tail that doesn't flex; it is in a fixed position. He was feral born and was caught with two sisters, one of whom looked like a red point siamese ( Lambert is a cream and white tabby). Both sisters had normal tails. While this is not a rare anamoly, we do get more than our share of cats with this trait at our Humane Society.
Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on July 17, 2009:
I don't understand your question Michael... Do you mean how can some mutations show up in animals and in humans? Like Albinoism and dwarfism? If that is your question then the answer is simple. All animals on the planet share a certain amount of DNA with all the other animals on the planet, including humans. Many of these mutations are just a varient of one gene, or are rescessive genes seen in many many animals. An albino fruit fly shares the albino gene of a human for instance or a Dachshund dog will share the achondroplasia gene (dwarf gene shortening the legs) with a person with achondroplasia. This is how laboratory animals aid in medical research. You wouldn't believe how many diseased genes we could track down in humans due to the research done on fruit flies with the same defective genes! Of course mammals share even more genes with us so lab mice and rats will always be king in the feild (surpassed only by primates in their similiarities to us.) Hope that helped!
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on March 25, 2009:
Great pictures and great reading. That pride of white lions is unbelievably beautiful! Reminds be of my favorite cartoon when I was a kid.
jessy on February 09, 2009:
this is awsome i love this site :)
Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on October 03, 2008:
chatuana from Delhi, India on October 03, 2008:
I just gave you a thumbs up for your writing. Nice piece of work...