A Canadian museum has been given a rare opportunity to study a unique all-black bobcat, a colour morph that is thought to have been documented only 16 times* in these spotted cats. 

The specimen was donated to the New Brunswick Museum (NBM) in Saint John earlier this year. For research curator and head of zoology Donald McAlpine, it's exciting to have the animal for study and public display. 

"I'm very happy that we'll have it here at the museum," he told CBC News, adding that this marks only the fifth black bobcat seen in the area.

The museum's acquisition is unique and valuable, but the story has generated attention for other reasons, too. The cat in question was snared back in December by a local hunter, earning him some criticism on social media.

While the fur trade in Canada remains highly controversial in the public eye, New Brunswick trapper Oswald McFadden snared this bobcat legally, and he did opt to sell his catch – below market value (and despite being offered thousands of dollars and various perks from private collectors) – to a trio of wildlife organisations, who donated it to the museum. 

When photos of the cat started making the rounds online, researchers elsewhere in the world, including a team that is sequencing the bobcat genome, began to reach out. "I was able to let them know that we have tissue samples from some of these rare animals," McAlpine said.

The sooty creatures owe their pigmentation to a genetic condition called melanism – and we've seen it in many other cat species as well.

However, we still don't know exactly why the condition crops up. Some believe that dark skin and fur could help cats retain body heat in cold habitats. That hypothesis could certainly hold true for black bobcats in New Brunswick, but the only other place they've been documented is in sunny Florida. 

While both places are nestled along North America's east coast (about 3,000 miles apart), that's about all they have in common. 

"The obvious question is why Florida and New Brunswick?" said McAlpine. "I don't have a good answer for that. I can't see any ecological or environmental reason it should be more prevalent in Florida and New Brunswick over other jurisdictions." 

It could be that localised breeding has helped to keep the mutation close to home (male bobcats tend to patrol a range of between six and 50 miles), but the more likely answer is that it is present elsewhere – we just haven't found it. 

* Initial reports suggested 12 such cats had been documented, but further investigation put the number at between five and six in New Brunswick and ten in Florida.


Top header image: [KH2203]/Flickr