The Black Panther
By Peter Olsen

LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, is the first in a series of books about Laura's life on the 1870's frontier. "The Story of Grandpa and the Black Panther" can be found in Chapter 2.

Do you think "The Story of Grandpa and the Black Panther" that Pa told was true, or was it made up? Could there really have been a black panther living in the Big Woods of Wisconsin in the 1800's? My mom and I did some research on it to find out.

Panther is a common name that is given to several varieties of big cats. Panther is another name for the leopard, which is a native of Asia and Africa. The puma of North America, also known as the cougar or mountain lion, is sometimes called a panther, but it is a completely different animal. A jaguar may also be called a panther.

The New World Jaguar looks a lot like the Old World Leopard. It is thought that leopards from Asia spread across to the Americas via the northern land bridge between the two continents. The scientific name for the jaguar is Panthera onca. Panthera is Greek meaning "for all" and "hunter"; onca is Greek meaning "hook" or "barb," a reference to the jaguar's formidable set of claws. (In the story, the panther landed on Grandpa's horse and slashed its back with its enormous claws.)

The jaguar is the largest cat native to the Western Hemisphere. Adults range from about six to eight feet long. Jaguars are cinnamon-buff in color, with black spots. A black color phase also occurs. A black jaguar is simply a spotted jaguar with very dark hair that masks its spots. For a jaguar to be black, it must receive two black-coat genes, one from its mother and one from its father. The black jaguar is very rare. (The panther that Grandpa saw was huge and black.)

A solid-colored jaguar or "black panther" is often of a more aggressive nature than those with a spotted coat. This is because normal spotted mothers tend to dislike solid-color cubs, often driving them away prematurely. This ostracism produces mean-tempered, intolerant individuals. The black jaguar is a very independent creature and it lives by itself. Like most cats, they are territorial.

The jaguar hunts by twilight and by night. (It was dark when Grandpa was riding through the woods.) The muscular jaguar seeks large or small game of any type. (It was after Grandpa and his horse.) The jaguar stalks its prey on the ground or from trees, often dropping silently onto its prey from above. (The panther followed Grandpa through the woods and was always close behind, jumping from treetop to treetop, and finally leaping through the air overhead.) While generally quiet, jaguars roar to announce their presence to other members of their species. They are also capable of a variety of loud feline screams, hisses and growls. (Grandpa heard the panther scream.)

Jaguars are known to be far ranging. Movements of 500 miles have been recorded. The jaguar was originally found in savannahs and forests in all parts of North and South America. Now it is only found south of the United States in Mexico, Central and South America. The last native jaguar in the U.S. died in the early 1960's. So there may very well have been a black jaguar, also known as a black panther, chasing Grandpa in the Big Woods of Wisconsin that night.

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