Science | November 11, 2022 8:00 a.m.
Many of the Marvel superhero’s powers are inspired by the namesake predator
The costume worn by Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther in the 2016 film Captain America: Civil War is in the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The suit imbues him with powers similar to the abilities of the dark cats.
Superhuman strength, speed and agility are just a few of Black Panther’s powers in Marvel comics and films. But how do they compare to the feats performed by real black panthers?
Black Panther—played by the late Chadwick Boseman—first appeared on screen in the 2016 movie Captain America: Civil War, sporting a form-fitting panther suit equipped with pointy ears and a spiked metal collar. In the acclaimed 2018 movie Black Panther, King T’Challa returned in an upgraded supersuit, a sleek black habit featuring a dual chevron chest design, sophisticated weaving and gleaming metal claws peeking out at the hands and feet. The suit is threaded with vibranium, a nearly indestructible fictional element that absorbs and converts kinetic energy into power. After Boseman’s death in 2020, the torch will be passed to a new wearer in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever—perhaps to a female Black Panther, if the sequel’s trailers are to be believed.
In the Marvel universe, Black Panther’s superhuman attributes primarily derive from a native Wakandan plant, but the character’s creators took inspiration from his animal namesake. “The Black Panther has all the abilities of a giant jungle cat: He moves with the same stealth and power, and can climb trees and so forth, and he wears a black outfit that conceals his identity,” the hero’s creator, Stan Lee, said in a 2005 interview.
Ahead of the November 11 release of the highly anticipated movie, we reached out to two experts on big cats to learn more about the stealthy and powerful panther.
Just like the superhero, black panthers are essentially fictional. Rather than referring to a specific species of big cat, “black panther” is really a colloquial term used to refer to dark jaguars (Panthera onca) and leopards (Panthera pardus). The animals are melanistic, meaning they have dark-pigmented fur, specifically a black coat or large clusters of black spots set against a backdrop of dark fur. The term “panther” itself derives from the genus Panthera, which encompasses contemporary species like jaguars and leopards, as well as lions and tigers, grouping them together due to their similar cranial features.
The melanistic trait is genetic and owes itself to recessive alleles in leopards and dominant alleles in jaguars, says Byron Weckworth, director of conservation genetics at Panthera, a conservation organization for wild cats. Though melanin concentrations can vary between jaguars and leopards born in the same litter, melanistic jaguars and leopards are rare. “About 10 percent of cats are roughly estimated to be of the black color morph across both species [jaguars and leopards], and that’s all due to various environmental pressures and natural selection,” Weckworth says.
T’Challa is native to the fictional African nation of Wakanda, and some melanistic leopards also live in Africa. But black leopards are also common in Asia, where, as in Africa, they are mostly found in dark, dense and wet jungle habitats, such as along African mountain ranges and in tropical forests in South and Southeast Asia. In contrast, melanistic jaguars primarily live in wet lowlands, savannas and rainforests across Central and South America, such as along the Amazon River basin.
One of the notable features of Black Panther’s supersuit are the retractable vibranium claws attached to the tips of the suit’s fingers that serve as the hero’s primary mode of combat while attacking and subduing enemies. Craig Saffoe, a curator of large carnivores at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, likens the retractable claws to switchblades, adding that each digit of a jaguar’s or leopard’s paw has a claw attached to it by a ligament. When the ligament is pulled back, the claw is pulled back. The claws’ ability to retract ensures they remain guarded; if the claws were out all the time, they’d become dull or could break. “It’s super important for [jaguars and leopards] to be able to grasp and hold and also incapacitate the prey that they’re chasing,” Saffoe says. “If [their claws] didn’t retract, they wouldn’t be able to hold on to their prey, grasp as much, and they wouldn’t be able to climb trees.”
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever features a major foe in Namor, the king of an underwater kingdom, and if the sequel sends its hero into the ocean, rest assured that jaguars and leopards are amazing swimmers. Unlike a typical house cat that hates water, jaguars and leopards use wetlands and rivers to their advantage. Both cats have the ability to swim, but, given that jaguars tend to live in wetter environments, they’re more likely to go in the water to play, cool off and relax, according to Saffoe. He says jaguars are very well adapted to aquatic and semi-aquatic environments—so prey fleeing into water won’t have much luck.
Marvel’s Black Panther sneaks up on enemies before subduing them. Similarly, jaguars and leopards use stealth while hunting. Dark fur grants the nocturnal predators camouflage, Weckworth says, and the cats use the shadows of the night to hide from prey. “[Jaguars and leopards] are not going to go out there and chase their prey for a long distance,” Weckworth says. “They’re going to sneak up on it, have a short sprint to get it, kill it and take it down.”
In the original Black Panther, T’Challa uses his suit’s night-vision optics to spot enemies after dark and take them down. Jaguars and leopards essentially do the same; they have reflective lenses on their eyes that let them efficiently absorb light, Saffoe says. At night, the cats can see about six to seven times better than humans. The nocturnal predators’ keen eyesight allows them to spot prey with little to no light. Jaguars’ and leopards’ eyes tend to be a yellowish gold to green, with the color standing out more against the dark-pigmented fur of melanistic cats.
Jaguars and leopards have an acute olfactory sense that aids in their survival, helping them identify friends and foes in the wild. The cats exhibit the flehmen response, a behavior in which they curl their upper lip to expose their front teeth and inhale—a position they hold for a few seconds. “What that does is it opens up their nasal passages and they breathe in, so it really maximizes all the surface area in their snout to absorb all these chemicals and molecules coming from a scent and strengthening that signal for them to process,” Weckworth says. The flehmen response allows jaguars and leopards to take stock of other animals and identify them from their smell alone, according to Weckworth. Similarly, one of Black Panther’s abilities in the Marvel comics was a superhuman sense of smell the hero used to track down enemies and even sense if people were lying.
Jaguars and leopards are obligate carnivores, meaning they eat mostly meat, as they are unable to digest plant material very well. Still, jaguars and leopards will seek out and access vegetation for medicinal and healing purposes. “[Jaguars and leopards] don’t have Pepto Bismol, so they go eat some grass or some leaves, and then they vomit and they feel better,” Saffoe says. In terms of their actual diets, jaguars and leopards generally prey upon small to medium herbivores, which vary depending on location but include antelope, deer, impala, tapir and birds.
Leopards use trees to their advantage, climbing and resting on them to hide and isolate themselves from predators or to spot and ambush their next meal. Leopards are also famous for taking their kills into trees. “Leopards will scale a vertical tree, and they’ll carry an impala up there,” Saffoe says. “They’re using those claws to hook into the bark of the tree and climb. It’s ridiculous, especially when you think about the fact that a good-sized impala outweighs a leopard, so it’s carrying more than its body weight, sometimes, up a tree with its jaws.” Jaguars can climb trees, but they aren’t particularly known for that ability, as they’re at the top of the food chain in their native environments and therefore don’t have much competition. In contrast, leopards may have hostile and potentially fatal run-ins with hyenas or lions.
Black Panther’s vibranium suit imbues the hero with the power of superspeed, which he uses to chase down and evade enemies. Jaguars and leopards have sprinting speeds of about 30 to 40 miles per hour, allowing them to capture fast prey like impala and antelope. Given their stealth, speed and agility, Weckworth refers to jaguars and leopards as “the ninjas of the forest.” They rely on quick, stealthy moves to catch their prey, and their initial speed is important—they quickly take down animals before they can escape.
Jaguars and leopards have unique ways of marking their territory, including using their claws to rake down trees. “They’ll certainly use urine to mark their area, and sometimes they’ll rub their bodies and the heads along an area to get their scent on every object that they can possibly get their scent on,” Saffoe says. Weckworth adds that these markings serve as signals to fellow jaguars and leopards, as well as other animals, that the territory is taken and they need to go elsewhere. However, some male jaguars or leopards may challenge a resident male for territory—the animals fight until one dies or gets seriously injured. Whoever wins has claim over the territory and resources.
Both female jaguars and leopards are pregnant for about three months before giving birth to a litter of about two to four cubs that may vary in color scheme depending on the parents’ appearance and genetics. Female jaguars and leopards raise their cubs alone until they reach sexual maturity—at about 2 years old for both males and females. Females reproduce soon after reaching sexual maturity, but males may not do so for a while. “Females will start reproducing earlier than males because the male not only has to find females, but it has to earn those reproductive rights away from the rest of the males,” Weckworth says.
Jaguars can weigh between 200 to 300 pounds. “Jaguars are almost the perfect size, because they’re big enough to be powerful, but they’re small enough to still be agile,” Saffoe says. Leopards are smaller than jaguars and tend to weigh about 150 to 200 pounds. Like jaguars, leopards are renowned for their agility and can leap about 20 feet horizontally. One of Black Panther’s abilities is enhanced agility that allows the hero to leap great distances when chasing down enemies. For both leopards and jaguars, adults tend to be about four to five feet in length, minus tail length, with the longest of both species growing to be about six feet.
Although Black Panther was dedicated to his family, his fellow Avengers and his people, jaguars and leopards are often solitary animals that tend to live, hunt and travel alone. They interact when mating and while females are tending to their cubs before they reach maturity. Saffoe says evidence of their solitary nature is primarily based on scientists’ observations of their behavior in the wild, but exceptions to the rule exist. “There’s evidence that individual leopards will allow other animals to come in and feed off of kills that they’ve made, which suggests a higher level of social interaction than we previously thought,” Saffoe says.
Jacquelyne Germain is an intern for Smithsonian magazine.
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