Melanism in "non-spotted " big cats

I know that some individual leopards and jaguars are melanistic – not quite pure black, since you can still make out spots/rosettes if the sun is shining on them – but I was wondering about other species of big cats. Do lions and tigers ever go melanistic? How about mountain lions (not technically “big cats”, I think)?

Mountain lions, often called cougars, are not “big cats” in the sense that they don’t belong to the *Panthera *genus (as do lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars). But they can be bigger (in size) than leopards, so I guess it depends on what definition you’re using. They also don’t “roar” as the “big cats” do.

I’m not aware of any true melanistic cougars having been documented, although many people claim to have seen one.

There aren’t any “technical” “big cats”. It’s an informal designation, which can be applied to anything from strictly members of Panthera (as John Mace does, above), to most of Felidae, with the notable exception of Felis. Here, for example, pumas (aka cougars, aka mountain lions) are counted as “big cats”. Here, they consider “big cats” to be Panthera + Acinonyx + Neofelis. And then, of course, you have various fossil lineages, such as Smilodon and other large machairodontin cats.

As for your question about melanism, this paper probably has the answers you seek (at least 11 of the 37 species of Felidae commonly exhibit melanism). I haven’t read it all yet, so I can’t list off the relevant species.

ETA: This article may be more relevant; it mentions that melanism has been identified in at least 13 species, including leopards, jaguars, lions, tigers, and pumas, to name a few of the oft-considered “big cats”.

Thanks for the info!

On the opposite paw, I saw a TV commercial with a snow-white lion. (Don’t remember the product. There was a pretty blonde and the lion licked her face at the end, to which the girl smiled in a way that was supposed to indicate happiness but looked a little like “oh god let this be over”.)

I don’t think the animal was albino, but I didn’t note the eye color.

I had not heard of leukonistic (sp?) lions (outside Japanese cartoons). “White” tigers, yes, and even alligators. Was the “white lion” real, or would it’s color be the result of computer manipulation? Is leukonism known in other felines besides tigers and housecats?


OK, OK–I should have checked Google before writing this. There are white lions.

However, the cat in the advert looked too white; the real cats have some shading of color, especially on the face or mane, but this one lacked same. Unless my visual memory is out of whack (like the rest of my memory sometimes) the color of the cat in the commercial was like snow. So I’m still suspicious of its authenticity.

The term you’re looking for is “leucistic” (the condition is “leucism”). As near as I can tell, leucism has been documented in at least panthers, pumas, and bobcats, along with lions and tiger (and ligers), within Felidae.

Another interesting color condition is “erythrism”, in which the animal has a reddish hue.