The Really Big Cat

Amur at BZ (2).jpeg
Amur tiger at Brookfield Zoo

The tiger, Panthera tigris, is the biggest of the big cats and can grow over 600lbs and 8 feet long. There are six extant subspecies of tigers, the Amur, Bengal, Malayan, Indochinese, Sumatran and the South China which is unfortunately functionally extinct and only survives in some zoos in China. There are also three subspecies of tigers that became extinct within the last century, the Javan, Caspian and Bali tigers. Tigers are considered endangered by the IUCN and its estimated there are less than 4,000 tigers in the wild, although tiger numbers are on the rise thanks to conservation efforts.


Flehmen Response

Tigers are native to Asia and up in to parts of Russia, living in forests, swamps and savannas but they have lost 93% of their historic range mostly due to habitat loss. Tigers are solitary and can have territories of up to 25 square miles only coming together to mate. Tigers find each other to mate through their sense of smell. Tigers will mark their territory not just to prevent other tigers from entering but to also find a mate. Similar to a house cat tigers will both rub their cheeks and spray to mark. When another tiger comes across scent markings of another tiger ready to mate they will elicit a Flehmen response, where they open their mouth, snarling their lips and drool. Also like house cats, tigers have a Jacobson’s organ on the roof of their mouth; the Flehmen response allows the tiger to smell more intensely. In addition to scent, tigers also communicate through vocalizations like chuffing and roaring. Tiger roars can be hears over a mile away and are used to either mark territory or to find out if another tiger is nearby (video here). Chuffing is a much quieter, breathy vocalization used as a friendly greeting between tigers (video here and two tigers here).

White spots on the back of a tiger’s ears

Although tigers may be large and powerful they still aren’t the most skilled hunters. Tigers’ diets consist mainly of deer, boar and water buffalo, these animals are most times much faster than a tiger which is why tigers only catch their prey about one in fifteen tries. To catch their prey tigers must utilize the element of surprise as they know their prey can run much faster than them. Tigers won’t typically even continue to stalk their prey if their prey spots them. This goes not just for prey but also territorial tigers. Tigers have a white spot on the back of their ears and it’s hypothesized that this is to deter a tiger from attacking another tiger from behind. More so it’s also utilized by humans living near tiger territories to prevent human tiger conflict. Many fishers now wear masks on the back of their heads to deter tigers from preying upon them, something that has been increasing as tiger habitats are being depleted. To catch their prey, tigers stalk almost silently by walking very slowly and on their toes to make as little noise as possible (video here). Their stripes also act as camouflage under the shade of the trees making it hard to spot a quiet and slow moving tiger.

Cub petting

While tigers in the wild are facing the threat of extinction, tigers in the United States are also facing trouble. It’s currently estimated that there are more captive tigers in private ownership in the state of Texas alone than in the wild due to the exotic pet trade. These tigers typically come from within the US from backyard breeders and cub petting facilities. Some may think if tigers are endangered then it’s good practice to breed more but the tigers being bred in the United States outside of reputable zoos are “generic” or of mixed subspecies which makes them unsuitable for conservation purposes. Even more, many have white tigers in their family tree which inherently involves inbreeding, this color variation is called leucism and is a recessive trait. It’s estimated white tigers occur one in every 10,000 natural births in Bengal tigers, not Amur tigers that live in snowy climates, making the color disadvantageous to survival. White tigers in captivity originated from one white tiger caught in the wild in the 1950s which was then bred and then bred with its offspring to produce more white tigers which has led to genetic defects and diseases in white tigers and tigers related to white tigers today. Even without the issues coming from how the tigers are being bred, there are too many tigers being bred in the United States to care for and sanctuaries cannot take in big cats fast enough in the United States.

Tiger stalking

Even though tigers face many challenges today we are making strides in protecting tigers from extinction. Tiger populations are on the rise for the first time in a century, the first successfully rehabbed orphan tiger has had cubs, Tiger Temple in Thailand was finally shut down and the Big Cat Public Safety Act was introduced in congress. But there’s still more we can do like


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