What's the deal with Kenya's pitch-black wild cats?

Life can be tough for black cats. The sooty felines have long been linked with witches and evil and, come October, some domestic cats are adopted purely as Halloween decorations only to be abandoned when the holiday is over. While many might see black cats as a bad omen, spotting a melanistic serval in the wild is more like a stroke of good luck. Two recent sightings of black servals from Kenya and Tanzania provide further evidence that a healthy population of these unusually coloured cats are hiding out in East Africa.

Earlier this month, biologist Lynn Von Hagen came across a jet-black cat strolling beside a dirt road in Kenya's Tsavo conservancy. She shared a short clip online captured by ranger and field research assistant, Benard Mwatate. Servals usually sport a cheetah-like coat with black spots, bands and stripes; but dark-furred individuals appear to be fairly common in East Africa, Von Hagen told us via email. Recent surveys estimated that at least 46% of the servals in Tsavo are melanistic.

Further west, on Tanzania's Namiri Plains, photographer George Turner came across another black serval and shared a photo of the cat on his Instagram profile - "[I] can't describe how mind-blowing this was ... and still is," Turner wrote on Instagram. " For context, even seeing a 'normal' serval is tough. They’re shy, secretive cats that tend to live in tall grasses — the perfect combination for staying unnoticed."

Although these shadowy cats are found in most African countries south of the Sahara, there are only four known locations on the east of the continent where you might run into a population of black servals. As Turner points out above, servals are notoriously elusive, so determining exactly how many melanistic cats are roaming East Africa is a tricky task. The population does, however, seems to be growing (or our awareness of the unique cats has increased). "I am in the bush often and thus far have seen more melanistic than normal," says Von Hagen who has spent many hours conducting field research in Kenya over the last two years. "In fact last month we had sightings in separate areas three weeks in a row."

The slender cats owe their dark pigmentation to a genetic condition called melanism, which affects at least 13 of the 37 known feline species worldwide. Black panthers are perhaps the most famous of the melanistic cats. Panthers are not a separate species, but rather the name is an umbrella term used to describe dark-coated leopards in Africa and Asia, and jaguars in South America. Although melanistic cats may look completely uniform in colour, spotted felines retain their patterned markings which can still be seen in the right light.

The exact reasons for the lingering genetic mutation are not known, but it's thought that, in some environments, darker fur could be beneficial. Melanism is a genetic condition and, as such, environmental factors cannot directly influence whether or not a cat will sport an inky coat, but it's possible that the condition prevails in certain areas as it provides some kind of advantage. In moist forest habitats, for example, records of melanistic cats are more common suggesting that the dark colouring could be an adaptive advantage that may be "related to thermoregulation or some other functional characteristic," Panthera point out on their website.

In the case of servals, melanistic individuals are usually spotted at higher elevations where it’s believed that the dark colouration could help the cats retain body heat in their chilly alpine habitats. The latest sightings do not fit this theory, however, as both of these cats were spotted in lower-lying areas. We still have much to learn about East Africa's melanistic servals. For now, like many black cats before them, they remain shrouded in mystery.

Source: Earth Touch News Network