Are There Panthers in South Carolina?by Dennis Matherly on 03/11/19
On February 12, 2019, the story of a man who claimed to have been attacked by a black panther in Georgetown county spread quickly across news outlets and social media. The story was soon revealed to be a hoax but it reignited the many rumors of panthers and large wild cats in South Carolina. We're here with the info you need to separate fact from fiction.
History of Large Cats in South Carolina
First, for clarity, the panther has many names, including puma, cougar and mountain lion--all of these names refer to the same animal in North America. What was once called the Eastern Cougar and roamed areas throughout the southeastern United States was declared extinct in 2011 by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The last known living Eastern Cougar was sighted and suspected to have been killed in 1938. However, should one be sighted, it is now illegal to kill them.
Note: A number of other species all over the world have been declared extinct, only to be rediscovered, having survived in a very tiny population that was out of sight long enough to assume them extinct.
Big Cat Confusion
Part of the confusion about the mysterious panther in South Carolina is that scientists now believe it is the same animal as the mountain lion that still thrives in the western area of the country and Rocky Mountains. The primary difference is that over time, the population that lived in the southern U.S. decreased in size--a normal adaptation to warmer climates. So rather than a unique species, the Eastern Cougar was a distinct variation within the cougar population that roamed throughout North America.
Adding more confusion to the situation is the small population of elusive panthers living in the Florida Everglades. Scientists view these large cats as a distinct population (but still the same species) from the mountain lions of the western U.S. While it's uncommon, an individual or a few from this population can roam as far north as the southern tip of South Carolina. One thing scientists agree on and have no confusion about is that none of these large cats is or ever has been black in color. Genetic data gathered from a number of samples shows a distinct lack of the genes required for that coloration. Sorry, Carolina Panthers football fans!
What IS Out There?
Ask anyone who spends time in the South Carolina wilderness and they'll have a number of stories of their own sightings, camera/video footage and sightings by reputable people in the community. So what IS out there that these folks are seeing? There are a number of answers to this question. Some sightings are likely animals that ended up in our state through the exotic animal trade. Panther cubs are adorable--until they grow large enough to eat their owners and become difficult to handle. These animals often end up being released into the wilderness areas. Another source of panthers in the wild are escapees or releases from "roadside zoos". When it comes to "black panther" sightings, scientists believe these animals are most likely smaller bears, black wolves or panthers sighted when lighting conditions and shadows cause them to appear darker in color than they are.