Melanistic coat coloration occurs as a common polymorphism in 11 of 37 felid species and reaches high population frequency in some cases but never achieves complete fixation. To investigate the genetic basis, adaptive significance, and evolutionary history of melanistic variants in the Felidae, we mapped, cloned, and sequenced the cat homologs of two putative candidate genes for melanism (ASIP [agouti] and MC1R) and identified three independent deletions associated with dark coloration in three different felid species. Association and transmission analyses revealed that a 2 bp deletion in the ASIP gene specifies black coloration in domestic cats, and two different "in-frame" deletions in the MC1R gene are implicated in melanism in jaguars and jaguarundis. Melanistic individuals from five other felid species did not carry any of these mutations, implying that there are at least four independent genetic origins for melanism in the cat family. The inferred multiple origins and independent historical elevation in population frequency of felid melanistic mutations suggest the occurrence of adaptive evolution of this visible phenotype in a group of related free-ranging species.