Tigers are the only big cats to have stripes and individuals can be identified by their pattern.But when it comes to predatory adaptations, you wouldn’t expect a coloration of bright orange with black stripes to be top of the list – in fact it might not be on the list at all.
However, while we typically see tigers in zoos, conspicuous against the green vegetation in their enclosures, their main prey is ungulates, which cannot detect the range of colours that we primates can. To an animal with comparatively poor vision, the cat’s bold, contrasting colours are much harder to pick out in the long grass.
This method of camouflage is an important predatory adaptation. Whereas some large felines rely on co-operative hunting (such as lions) or bursts of intense speed (such as cheetahs), tigers are semi-solitary and depend on their cryptic appearance to ambush prey.
What do tigers eat?
Tigers are carnivorous mammals, and they mostly eat large prey like deer, wild boar and even elephant calves. And yes, they have occasionally been known to kill and eat people, too. This usually only happens when a tiger is old, ill or injured, and therefore unable to catch their normal prey. But once a tiger has a taste for human meat, they often have to be killed to protect the local people.
A tiger’s favourite way of taking down its prey is to lunge at the animal’s neck and hold on tight with its powerful jaws. The prey will normally die from suffocation, but some might bleed out first if the tiger’s canines sever an artery.
Is the tiger the world’s biggest cat?
Tigers are the biggest cat in the wild, yes. Male tigers can grow to be over 3m long and weigh up to 300kg, while female tigers tend to be a bit smaller.
However, another big cat has been bred in captivity that’s even larger. If you breed a male lion with a female tiger, you get a liger. These truly enormous cats have no equal in the modern world, growing up to 3.6m long and being considerably heavier than even the biggest tigers – the largest living cat, Hercules the liger, weighs close to 420kg, and the record is a staggering 550kg.
Tigers have white spots surrounded by black fur on the back of their ears. It has been suggested that they act as false eyes to warn of their presence or discourage other species from attacking them from behind. Other theories suggest that it helps tiger cubs follow their mother through tall grass.
In tall grass, rock crevices or caves, tiger cubs are born blind and depend on their mother for protection. Females usually give birth to two to three cubs but can have as many as six. Each litter has a dominant cub who is more active than their siblings and takes the lead in their play. This sibling is usually the first to leave its mother.
After 15 months the matured cubs will disperse and find their own territories.
How long do tigers live for?
Tigers have a 14 year life span. Once mature, they will spend most of their time living and hunting alone, with the exception of females when they are raising their young.
The range of these big cats can be between 20km to 400km. Tigers in cold northern regions tend to have the largest territories. Scent marking allows tigers to communicate with other tigers in their range, and scratching posts are also useful communication tools, as well as helping to keep their claws sharp.
Tigers are relatively adaptable and historically lived across huge swathes of Asia. There are now very few left in South-East Asia, but they’re doing relatively well in India, Nepal, Russia and Bhutan. Tiger habitats vary by region, with the larger tigers of colder northern regions (like the Siberian tiger) living in the brutal taiga, while smaller tigers from warmer regions can happily live in arid forests, tropical rainforests and flooded swamplands and mangroves.
Tigers have night vision that is six times better than that of humans, which helps them hunt successfully in the dark. A tiger will mainly hunt pigs and deer but is capable of taking prey larger than itself.
How many tigers are left in the world?
The surviving tiger subspecies are the Siberian tiger, South China tiger, Sumatran tiger, Indochinese tiger, Malayan tiger and Bengal tiger. It is believed that between all of those subspecies, there are only 3,000 to 4,500 individuals left in the wild.
The Javan tiger and Bali tiger are sadly both thought to have been hunted to extinction. They were most closely related to the Sumatran tiger (and may have even been the same subspecies), which is still clinging on in Indonesia.
As well as being illegally poached in the wild, tigers can still be legally farmed for their body parts in China. International trade in tiger parts is banned, but it’s a different story domestically, where there’s high demand for luxury rugs, tiger skin accessories, tiger bone wine and traditional medicines (which have never been shown to work).
You can find out more about tiger farming and the damage it causes in these Discover Wildlife features: