Species Fact: Tigers

Last week, we met the world’s smallest cat.

Now it’s time to check out the biggest kitty on Earth with this excerpt from my upcoming eBook about the big cats and other international feline lineages, for sale starting May 21, 2020.


Ancient Greeks reportedly borrowed the word “tigris” from some unknown source and used it for both the Middle Eastern river and this beautiful striped cat. Over time, the cat’s name has turned into “tiger.”

Its scientific name still reflects that historic term: Panthera tigris.

Tigers have many common names, based on where they’re found:

Malayan tiger (upper left): Jean, CC BY 2.0; Amoy tiger (upper center): Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 1.0; Amur/Siberian tiger (with cubs) (upper right): mcamcamca, CC BY-SA 2.0; Bengal Tiger (lower left): Derrick Brutel, CC BY-SA 2.0; Indochinese tigers (lower center): Doug Beckers, CC BY-SA 2.0; and Sumatran tiger (lower right): Bernard Spragg, NZ, public domain

Yes, they all look very much alike. There are some genetic differences, but the boffins are still debating formal tiger subspecies names.



Outstanding Features:

  1. Individual Amur and Bengal tigers are the biggest cats in the world. However, there is quite a range of sizes. Some tigers living near the Equator are smaller than African lions!
  2. Jean-Pierre Dalbera, CC BY 2.0

  3. Stripes!

    Some experts suspect that stripes evolved to hide tigers in tall grass, but more research suggests that this isn’t the case. (Allen et al.) One study found that stripes have the right “spatial frequency” to conceal a stalking tiger’s movements from its prey.

  4. Bengal tigers have the longest fangs in the modern cat family. (Heske)
  5. Tigers may have the shortest developmental branch of any member of the cat family. (Cho et al.; Culver et al.; Haslam and Petraglia; Williams) In plain English, their genetic “reset button” has been hit a few times over the last 100,000 years. Why? Apart from brushes with extinction thanks to human activities over the last couple of centuries, no one really knows what happened, although plenty of hypotheses are currently on the table.


These are from the Cat Specialist Group unless otherwise noted. As you’ll see, tiger size varies a lot from place to place.

  • Weight: 165 to 716 pounds.
  • Height at the shoulder: 2.3 to 4 feet. (Sunquist and Sunquist; Wikipedia)
  • Body length: 5 to 7.6 feet.
  • Tail length: 3 to 3.6 feet.

    White tigers are a thing, too. (Image: Jack Fiallos, CC BY 2.0)

  • Coat: Rusty red to yellowish-orange background color, with pure black or brownish stripes. Coat patterns are unique, including markings on the side of the tiger’s face, identify individuals. All tigers have straight dark lines over their eyes. The tail has dark rings and a black tip. Underparts are usually white. Male tigers, especially on Sumatra, have a prominent ruff (not a mane). Reports of melanistic (all-black) tigers haven’t been verified, but blue-eyed tigers with light sepia stripes on a white background are well known. (Ewer; Heptner and Sludskii; Kitchener et al., 2010; Schneider et al.; Xu et al.; Wikipedia)
  • Vocals: Most of the typical feline sounds except purring. Along with clouded leopards, snow leopards, and jaguars, tigers “chuff” (another word for this friendly feline greeting is “prusten”). They also grunt sociably, but when feeling tense tigers moan (you can listen to it here). In terms of roaring, Kitchener et al. (2010) report that tigers only do some parts of the full call that lions perform. (Christiansen; Sunquist and Sunquist; Wikipedia)
  • Average litter size: 1 to 5 (typically, per Ewer, 2 to 3).

Where found in the wild:

Figure 1: Driscoll, C. A.; Yamaguchi, N.; Bar-Gal, G. K.;
Roca, A. L.; and others. 2009 Mitochondrial phylogeography Illuminates the origin of the extinct Caspian Tiger and Its relationship to the Amur tiger. PLoS ONE 4(1): e4125. Public domain.

This image is from an open-access scientific publication.
Tigers used to be in the tan areas; now they’re only in the pink areas.


  • Range of environments: Tigers prefer open woodlands, but they’re flexible enough to handle everything from Siberian snow country to coastal mangrove swamps in the Ganges River delta and some of Indonesia’s equatorial rain forests. As long as there is water around and not too much snow in winter, tigers are good to go.
  • Prey base: Water attracts the large, hoofed plant-eaters like deer and wild boar that tigers probably evolved to hunt. A single cat can eat at least 50 of these 200-pound-plus animals each year.
  • Example of guild: In Asia, tigers, leopards, and dholes (a wild dog species) are often top carnivores. Tigers don’t always have it all their own way, though. While some studies show that leopards and dholes avoid tigers (Steinmetz et al.), in areas where prey is limited there may be intense competition (Wang and MacDonald).

    Red-list status:

    Endangered to Critically Endangered, depending on region. See the IUCN assessment and the Cat Specialist Group web page for more information.

    Featured image: Tambako the Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0


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