One of the largest of the 'big cats', the tiger (Panthera tigris) is an instantly recognisable animal and an iconic symbol of conservation. Nine different subspecies of this charismatic carnivore are recognised, three of which became extinct in the latter part of the 20th century: the Bali (P. t. balica), Javan (P. t. sondaica) and Caspian tigers (P. t. virgata). The remaining subspecies are the Siberian (P. t. altaica), South China (P. t. amoyensis), Sumatran (P. t. sumatrae), Indochinese (P. t. corbetti), Malayan (P. t. jacksoni) and Bengal tigers (P. t. tigris) (4).
Readily distinguished from other large felids as the only striped cat, the tiger generally has a distinctive reddish-orange to yellow-ochre coat with a white belly and black markings (2). The characteristic dark, vertical stripes patterning the body vary in their width, spacing, and length, and whether they are single or double stripes (5). The pattern and distribution of the stripes is unique to each tiger (2), with no two individuals exhibiting the same stripe pattern (5).
The tiger’s chest, throat, muzzle and the insides of its limbs are white or creamy, and there is usually a white area above the eye which extends onto the cheeks. A white spot is also often present on the back of the ears (5), and the male tiger usually has a prominent ruff on the head (2). The long tail is ringed with prominent dark bands (5).
The different subspecies vary in their body size, coat colour and markings, with the Sumatran tiger being the smallest and darkest, while the Siberian tiger is the largest and palest subspecies (6). However, markings and coat colour can overlap between subspecies, and individuals from different subspecies can not always be differentiated on the basis of their appearance alone (7).
Extreme colour varieties are occasionally seen in the wild, such as whitish-grey tigers with chocolate stripes (2). However, while this colour variation is popular with zoos, it is not of conservation significance (2).
Like the other big cats, the tiger is a formidable predator. It is exceptionally well adapted for hunting large prey, with short, heavily-muscled forelimbs and long, sharp, retractable claws (2). It also has a long, slender body, a short, thick neck and broad, powerful shoulders to capture and subdue its large prey (5). The skull is foreshortened, increasing the force that can be exterted by the powerful jaws and enabling the tiger to deliver crushing bites to its prey (2) (5).
- Smallest living subspecies - Sumatran tiger: 100 - 150 kg (2)
- Largest living subspecies - Siberian (Amur) tiger: 180 - 300 kg (2)