One of the world’s most beloved animals is the tiger. A four-footed mammal of the feline family, tigers are maybe the most recognizable of the big cats because of their special markings and heavy, muscular bodies. Most tigers have an orange or reddish-orange fur with jagged black stripes over most of their bodies, though their bellies are usually lighter-colored fur, and are perhaps the largest of the big cats in the world.
Figure 1: “Tiger” by Photopin
Their image has become a symbol of strength and resilience in realistic or stylized form for everything from fine art to folklore, from national flags to sports teams. As symbols and as real dangers, tigers have appeared in legends and stories for as long as we’ve had legends and stories recorded, but they are becoming extinct in the modern age as their habitat is being overtaken by human population. Once the top predator of the forest, the improved weaponry and disappearing forests are having a significant effect. Whether it is just the slightly bearded face, their sleek body and long tail, or just their distinctive stripes, the image of the tiger is beautiful, dangerous, elegant, and powerful. Because the image is so familiar to us, however, we may have lost the ability to appreciate the wide variety of tiger species there are on the planet. Rather than there just being one tiger ‘look’, there are a number of different subspecies and variants of tigers, some of which are already extinct. With an understanding of what makes up the distinction of ‘tiger’, it is possible to explore some of the variants of tiger subspecies that exist and understand why it is important to protect such wide stretches of habitat in order to save them.
As can be seen in the image above, tigers are large-bodied cats with a lot of muscle and attitude. Their front limbs look more muscular than their hindquarters, but that might also be because of the short ‘beard’ they often have along their jawline. While tigers usually have white fur on their bellies and inside areas, they are usually orange or reddish-orange and have black jagged stripes that mark their sides and faces. While this is an unusual marking pattern in nature, it is not entirely unique. Zebras also demonstrate a similar sort of striping pattern. According to Godfrey, Lythgoe, & Rumball theorized that this was nature’s form of camouflage for living in areas of tall grass and reeds that was their usual home. “Zebra stripes and tiger stripes, the spatial frequency distribution of the pattern compared to that of the background is significant in display and crypsis” (1987, 430). Also like zebra stripes, tiger stripe patterns are unique to each individual. Because the stripes go as deep as the skin, even a shaved tiger would show distinctive stripes on their hide.
As a species, tigers have a wide variety of sizes among the various subspecies. The largest of them weighing as much as 675 pounds almost 13 feet in length from nose to tail (Brakefield, 1993, 333). Female tigers are almost always smaller than male tigers, weighing only as much as about 370 pounds and 9 feet in length. For both male and female tigers, the tail can be anywhere from 2 to just under 4 feet of their total length (Brakefield, 1993, 334). By contrast, the smallest subspecies of tigers could be just half that size. Interestingly, the size differences between male and female tigers becomes more and more noticeable with the overall size of the species, so differences between male and female Siberian tigers (the largest of the species) will be much greater proportionately than size differences between male and female Sumatran tigers (the smallest of the species). Males also have wider forepaws than females, so it is possible for trackers to tell the sex of the animal they’re after (Matthiessen & Hornocker, 2001).
Famous White Tigers and Other Variants
There was a famous magic act that relied on the mystical appearing white tigers as an important part of their act. These beautiful animals were undeniably of the Bengal tiger species because the genetic abnormality that creates the rare white tiger is only found in this subspecies. As a recessive gene, there is only a chance for a tiger cub to be white if both of its parents carried the recessive gene so only one in every four cubs born would have the potential to be a true white tiger.
White tigers are different from albino tigers. Albinism is caused by a lack of pigment in the skin, fur or eyes. Albinos in any species will have no markings on their skin and their eyes will appear red. White tigers in the Bengal subspecies, though, can be all white with black stripes, demonstrating that they do have pigment, and typically have blue instead of the typical yellow eyes. While they are very rare in the wild, there are many white tigers today because of specialized breeding programs that have led to dangerous inbreeding and related problems such as cleft palate, scoliosis, and a squint (Begany, 2009). There are also some variants called ‘golden’ tigers which are more like blonde tigers with orange instead of black stripes. These are not seen as often and are also believed to be a Bengal variant. All golden tigers tested to date have been at least part Bengal and some even carry the white tiger gene, but not many of the golden tigers are kept in captivity and there is not a large commercial drive to falsely breed golden tigers within captivity settings.
Scientists have identified 10 subspecies of tiger, but only six remain in existence today. One subspecies is believed to have gone extinct sometime in prehistory, but three others are considered to have gone extinct only since the 1970s, mostly as a result of loss of habitat.
Figure 3: “Tiger Comparison Chart” by Robyn Barfoot
According to information gleaned from Chundawall, Khan, and Mallon (2011), the largest subspecies of tiger is the Siberian tiger in height and weight. Scientists believe this subspecies may be among the largest cats that have ever existed. They live in far eastern Siberia with a small population in a tiger preserve in eastern China, but there are less than 1,000 believed to be living today. Their habitat is extremely cold and tend to be coniferous forests. The most common of the surviving subspecies, but the second largest, is the Bengal tiger. It’s natural habitat is in India, Nepal, and Bangledesh and has a wide range of preferred habitat environments. Bengal tigers are comfortable living in grasslands, tropical rainforests, deciduous forests and mangroves.
|AVG. LENGTH||AVG. WEIGHT|
|Siberian||123-139 in.||111-129 in.||397-675 lbs.||220-368 lbs.|
|Bengal||110-120 in.||94-104 in.||397-569 lbs.||220-350 lbs.|
|Indochinese||108 in.||96 in.||331-430 lbs.||220-290 lbs.|
|Malayan||75-110 in.||71-102 in.||104-285 lbs.||53-194 lbs.|
|South China||91-102 in.||87-94 in.||290-400 lbs.||220-240 lbs.|
|Sumatran||87-100 in.||85-91 in.||220-320 lbs.||165-243 lbs.|
|Trinil – prehistoric||Bali (since 1937)||Caspian (since 1970s)||Javan (since 1979)|
Trinil – prehistoric Bali (since 1937) Caspian (since 1970s) Javan (since 1979)
Indochinese tigers are not much further behind the Bengals in terms of size, but are not as plentiful in the world today. Also preferring forests, but tending toward more hilly or mountainous regions, Indochinese tigers live in countries like China, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. The Malayan subspecies was only recently distinguished from the Indochinese subspecies and only live on the southern end of the Malay peninsula. Both the South China and Sumatran tiger subspecies are believed to be critically endangered or functionally extinct. They are the smallest two surviving tiger species. The only known surviving members of the South China species live in captivity while the Sumatran tigers live only in the dense forests of the Indonesian island national parks.
As the above exploration of tiger subspecies demonstrates, tigers once roamed a vast area of the globe, ranging all through Asia from the Caspian Sea to Siberia and out to the Indonesian Islands. Of the species that have gone extinct in recent memory, a major contributing cause of their extinction was loss of habitat, loss of prey, and deliberate tiger hunting. According to Dinerstein (et al, 2007), the historical range available to tigers has shrunk by 93% just from 1997 to 2007 and much of what remains has become fragmented and disjointed, further reducing available ranging opportunity. Although tigers can be adaptable to a wide variety of ranges, they do need to have some form of available cover, access to fresh water, and enough available prey to make them want to stay. They prefer denser cover such as forests and also need sufficient isolated and defensible den locations if the species is to survive. Since most adult tigers prefer to live primarily solitary lives, the species also needs enough room for each living tiger to have their own rangeland. Ranges for female tigers can be roughly 8 square miles while range for male tigers needs to be wider, roughly 23-39 square miles and often crossing over the territories of several different female tigers (Brakefield, 1993). Thus, there needs to be a corridor that connects ranges to enable tigers to carry on their historic social interactions and population growth.
The tiger is a fascinating animal with a long and meaningful place in environmental and cultural history. As a top predator in so many different parts of the world throughout Asia and Russia, the tiger has been a part of cultural history since the beginning of recorded history and thus has become an important symbol for us to preserve as well as an important hunter for the environmental ecosystem. The extinction of two distinct species of tiger in the last 50 years is sufficient cause for alarm. So is the significant loss of habitat and range tigers have suffered in just the last two decades. While we tend to think of tigers as a single type of large cat with an orange coat and black stripes, this species of mammal is still full of wonderful variety from one subspecies to another and with interesting variants that continue to fascinate the imagination – once they are known about. We need to do all we can to preserve these beautiful and inspiring animals before these real-live symbols of strength and grace go the way of the legendary dragons and griffins of old.
- Barfoot, Robyn. “Tiger Comparison Chart.” Tales of the Tiger. August 8, 2014. Web. http://www.talesofthetiger.com/uncategorized/quick-comparison-of-tiger-subspecies/
- Begany, Lauren. Accumulation of Deleterious Mutations Due to Inbreeding in Tiger Population. April 27, 2009. Print.
- Brakefield, T. Big Cats: Kingdom of Might. Voyageur Press, 1993. Print.
- Chundawat, R. S., Khan, J. A., Mallon, D. P. “Panthera tigris tigris”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. International Union for Conservation of Nature, Version 2011.2. Print.
- Dinerstein, E., Loucks, C., Wikramanayake, E., Ginsberg, Jo., Sanderson, E., Seidensticker, J., Forrest, J., Bryja, G., Heydlauff, A. “The Fate of Wild Tigers” (PDF). BioScience 57 (6), 2007: 508–514. Print.
- Godfrey D., Lythgoe J. N., Rumball D. A. (1987). “Zebra stripes and tiger stripes.” Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 32 (4), 1987: 427–433. Print.
- Matthiessen, Peter; Hornocker, Maurice (2001). Tigers In The Snow. North Point Press, 2001. Print.
- Photopin. “Tiger.” (2015). Web. http://www.flickr.com/photos/90901507@N00/65825006
- tthingz. “Golden Tiger.” ReBloggy. Web. http://rebloggy.com/post/1k-fav-beautiful-animal-tiger-jeff-golden-tabby-tiger-golden-tiger/43349087092