Tigers are the largest felines in the world, and many cultures see them as a symbol of courage, strength, and dignity. People born in the “Year of the Tiger” are considered to be brave, competitive, and self-confident.
Scientists used to think that there were nine subspecies of tigers, but a recent study has challenged this. Researchers found genomic evidence for six genetically distinct subspecies of tigers; the Bengal tiger, the Amur tiger, the South China tiger, the Sumatran tiger, the Indochinese tiger, and the Malayan tiger. Another three subspecies of tiger are now extinct; the Javan tiger, the Caspian tiger, and the Bali tiger.
How tigers vocalise to one another
Tigers are generally solitary animals, but they still need to communicate with others at times. A tiger can have an extensive range, and so communicating with potential mates, or with competitors can be challenging.
Researchers in the USA have utilised a tool normally used to assess hearing in human children, to explore what tigers are capable of hearing. They found that tigers are better at hearing low frequency sounds, such as roars, and that these sounds can be heard from over three kilometres.
Tigers use a range of vocalisations, and when close to one another they may growl, grunt, moan, snarl, chuff, hiss and gasp. Chuffing, or prusten, is a low-intensity sound, which is performed in short, loud bursts. It is reserved for friendly greetings, and it has been likened to the domestic cat’s purr. An adult male may perform chuffing when he intends to mate a nearby female.
A mother tiger may use soft groans to communicate and call to her cubs. These soft sounds are non-threatening, and they may also be used to communicate non-threatening intentions when approaching another tiger. Tigers only tend to use the louder aggressive snarls and growling when they are in defence mode.
How tigers use scent to communicate
One of the most effective ways for tigers to communicate is through scent-marking. This is particularly helpful given that tigers may go for weeks without physically seeing one another. Tigers leave scents rich with information through their urine and their faeces. When a female is ready to mate, she will increase her urine-marking, marking her territory liberally so that nearby males pick up the message. The marking fluid that tigers leave behind is extremely complex. Researchers in South Africa have analysed its composition, and found over 100 different chemical components.
When in direct contact with another tiger, tigers may rub themselves against each other. During this process, the tigers exchange scents. Mothers will regularly do this with their cubs, and they will often rub faces with them. Tigers have scent glands on their faces, and so they are transferring their scent to one another. Courting adult pairs will also do this behaviour. Tigers also have scent glands at the base of their tail, and between their toes. So, to spread their scent, tigers will rub their hindquarters on trees, and will scratch surfaces to leave their scent trail.
Tiger body language
Like us humans, tigers also use body language to communicate with others. Tigers have very mobile ears and expressive faces, and they will use these expressions to communicate their intentions. For example, when feeling aggressive, a tiger may twist back her ears, showing the onlooker their backs. This accompanied by a lashing tail, wide open eyes and a slightly open mouth, communicates aggressive intent. When defensive, tigers flatten their ears on their head, bare their teeth, narrow their eyes, and hang their tail low. A more relaxed tiger will have upright ears and an upright tail.
Despite being primarily solitary animals, tigers have a whole range of complex forms of communication. They may be different from how we humans communicate, but it is important that we understand them so that we humans can live safely and harmoniously alongside tigers in their natural habitat.
Tigers truly are amazing animals
There are now more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild. The WWF estimate that there are about 5,000 captive tigers in the USA alone, and less than 3,900 tigers in the wild. In fact, the WWF claim that we have lost 97% of our wild tigers in the last 1000 years. Thanks to many conservation efforts though, the WWF believe that numbers of wild tigers are slowly increasing, although all of the subspecies are still listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered.
Tigers are under threat for several reasons. Today, only 7% of their original range remains due to the impact of human agriculture, settlements, roads and logging. This has had a disastrous effect on tigers, and it has meant that tigers and humans are increasingly coming into conflict. This in turn means that both tigers and humans are at risk of hunting.
The biggest threat to tigers is poaching. There is a demand for tiger parts for various medicines and tonics, although there is no evidence that they have any effect. Tiger skins are also popular as a status symbol. This cruel trade has had a devastating effect on tigers in the wild, and it has even led to the development of tiger farms, where tigers are farmed for their parts. In China, for every living wild tiger there is thought to be around 100 tigers living on tiger farms.
Welfare of captive tigers
Tigers held on farms are also bred for their cubs. Once the mother gives birth, the cub is quickly removed to encourage the mother to enter another breeding cycle. This is not only harmful to the health of the cub, as they miss out on important nutrients from their mother’s milk, but it is likely to cause both the mother and the cub considerable distress. Tigers on breeding farms are kept in small, barren enclosures with little space to move. This is far removed from the huge home ranges they have evolved to live on. As a result, the tigers often perform stereotypical pacing as a result of the boredom, frustration and fear that they are feeling.
Tiger temples are another form of captivity for tigers. In these, tigers are forced to live unnaturally close to humans, and are mentally and physically abused8. The tigers are also forced to perform tricks for tourists, which is degrading and cruel. Tigers are wild animals, and do not belong in captivity. They cannot be tamed, and this is evidenced by the fact that many so-called ‘tame’ tigers bite and injure tourists at these temples.
For more information about the cruelty of tiger farming and tigers in entertainment: