Black Canada lynx seen for the first time ever

The dark-furred cat has a genetic condition called melanism that has been observed in about a third of cats, but not previously in this species.

A Canada lynx. These cats typically have reddish-brown coats in the summer that turn silver-gray in the winter. Now, a melanistic individual has been observed.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

In a scientific first, scientists have recorded the existence of an all-black Canada lynx. A woman who lives outside Whitehorse, in Canada’s Yukon Territory, captured the odd creature on camera phone wandering through her yard in late August 2020.

The video was just made public as the subject of a study published this month in the journal Mammalia. The cat has a condition called melanism, a genetic mutation that causes abnormal levels of a melanin, a dark pigment, to be produced in the animal’s skin and fur, according to the paper.

Though the condition has been observed in about a third of all cat species, it had never been seen in Canada lynxes before this sighting. Melanism has been recorded in bobcats—a close relative—in Florida and a few other places, says Darcy Doran-Myers, a biologist now with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute who has done research on lynxes. (Bobcats are the smallest of four living lynx species.)

Canada lynxes are typically colored reddish-brown in summer, and as fall rapidly turns to winter, their coat turns silvery gray. Their pelage helps them stay camouflaged in the northern woods and hunt animals such as snowshoe hares, their primary prey. (Learn more: Why some Canada lynx take mysterious 2,000-mile treks.)

Researchers suspect that melanism is maladaptive, or unhelpful, in Canada lynx, says Stan Boutin, an ecologist at the University of Alberta. That’s because it would make it harder for them to camouflage themselves in the snow, where they spend much of their lives hunting.

Nevertheless, this individual appeared to be a healthy adult, judging from the video, which can be seen on Youtube. “Being black is surely a disadvantage in the winter, so this lynx has done quite well for him or herself,” adds Doran-Myers.

Black cats, rare and otherwise

Researchers don’t yet know the exact mutation that causes melanism in Canada lynxes (Lynx canadensis). In other species, there are a variety of genetic mechanisms that spur an excess of melanin.

In some cats, such as jaguars, the condition is not uncommon—around 10 percent of these big cats are melanistic, and in areas with thick forests, this percentage can climb as high as 30 percent or more, research shows. “It’s typically considered to be more common in environments where it is not selected against… a melanistic jaguar still blends into a shadowy jungle,” Doran-Myers says in an email.

The condition is also not rare in leopards and some other cats. About 20 melanistic bobcats have also been observed in the last century. (Related: Is being a black cat beneficial? It depends.)

Though the term “black panther” is popularly used, often in relation to the Marvel Comics character, the term is a catch-all expression that refers to any big cat with a black coat. No melanistic cougars or mountains lions—sometimes called panthers—have ever been seen, however.

It’s interesting to consider the possibility that with less snow due to climate change, and thus darker surroundings in its Canadian habitat, a black-colored lynx would be more likely to survive.

But unless more melanistic individuals start showing up, that’s nothing more than an interesting line of speculation, Doran-Myers says.

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