Rob writes a weekly outdoors column and covers energy, environmental and nuclear issues (and lots of other topics) for the metro section. He has been an avid angler and hunter ever since he realized he had neither the aptitude nor the desire to take up golf. He has been a full-time journalist for 28 years, including 11 years as bureau chief in Columbia County. Before joining The Chronicle, he worked at newspapers in Columbia, S.C., and West Palm Beach, Fla. He has edited or authored three reference books on antique fishing tackle; and his freelance work has appeared in Field & Stream, Gray’s Sporting Journal and Georgia Outdoor News. He lives in Evans.
Posted September 28, 2010 01:27 pm - Updated September 28, 2010 05:03 pm

Mystery cat photographed: Panther or bobcat? Or something else?

This interesting cat was photographed in Screven County recently by a hunter's trail camera. Can you identify the species?

Georgia wildlife officials say we don't have panthers - and people who claim to have seen one continue to insist otherwise.

It's a perennial stalemate that has lingered for decades, with dozens of sightings reported annually across Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

Without evidence, however, the reports are routinely dismissed as mistaken identity linked to hound dogs, bobcats, large feral cats or small deer.

The lone exception was a 140-pound panther killed during a black powder hunt in 2008 near West Point Lake in Troup County. Genetic tests confirmed it was not - as biologists first said - an escaped pet.

It was a Florida panther and a member of the last subspecies of cougar still surviving in the eastern U.S., with fewer than 120 animals.

Almost two years later, authorities still have no explanation of how the cat ended up in Georgia - 600 miles from its known habitat.

Such mysteries bring up the obvious question of whether there could be other panthers - or something other than panthers that could explain the persistent sightings.

The most recent ones I'm aware of occurred just this past month.

One was a woman's call to Columbia County authorities claiming to have seen a panther at the New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery in the Campania community.

The other was this actual photo - taken by a hunter's trail camera - in Screven County.

The image, snapped about an hour before daylight, shows a dark cat meandering through swamp grass. Its tail is not visible, but it has an unmistakable flat, feline face.

Could it be a panther? Perhaps not. It doesn't appear large enough to be a mature cat from a species that routinely grows to be more than seven feet long.

Other opinions are that it could be a bobcat in low light, or perhaps a mature feral cat that has somehow interbred with bobcats.

The seemingly pointed ears on the cat in the photo might lend credence to that argument, since panthers have more rounded ears. But the angle of the photo could also have made rounded ears seem more pointed.

One common denominator among many reported "panther" sightings is a description of a cat much smaller than a typical panther, leading some theorists to surmise the creatures could be jaguarundi, a panther-like wildcat native to Mexico and Central America that has been found in Texas and Florida.

The jaguarundi is known to inhabit swamps and remote river basins and is so elusive that relatively little is known about the species. It is also commonly found with dark brown or black fur, which could help explain the large percentage of sightings in which the cat was a "black" panther.

Wildlife biologists continue to say it is unlikely that panthers, jaguarundis or other such predators are living in our midst undetected. And people who have seen them will continue to disagree.