Few animals evoke such strong feelings of fear and awe as the tiger. For centuries its behavior has inspired legends, and the occasional inclusion of man in its diet has intensified the mystique.
Tigers are the largest living felids. Siberian tigers are the largest and the most massively built subspecies: the record was a male weighing 384 kg (845 lb).
Like that of other big cats, the tiger’s physique reflects adaptations for the capture and killing of large prey. Their hindlimbs are longer than the forelimbs as an adaptation for jumping; their forelimbs and shoulders are heavily muscled-much more than the hindlimbs-and the forepaws are equipped with long, sharp, retractable claws, enabling them to grab and hold prey once contact is made. The skull is foreshortened, thus increasing the shearing leverage of the powerful jaws. A killing bite is swiftly delivered by the long, somewhat flattened canines.
Unlike the cheetah and lion, the tiger is not found in open habitats. Its niche is essentially that of a large, solitary stalk-and-ambush hunter which exploits medium-to-large-sized prey inhabiting moderately dense cover.
Tigers in Captivity
The basic social unit in the tiger is mother and young. Tigers have, however, been successfully maintained in pairs or groups in zoos and are seen in zoos (normally a female and young, but sometimes a male and female) at bait kills in the wild, indicating a high degree of social tolerance. The demands of the habitat in which the tiger lives have not favored the development of a complex society and instead we see a dispersed social system. This arrangement is well suited to the task of finding and securing food in an essentially closed habitat where the scattered prey is solitary or in small groups. Under these circumstances, a predator gains little by hunting cooperatively, but can operate more efficiently by hunting alone.
In a long-term study of tigers in Royal Chitwan National Park, in southern Nepal, it was found, using radio-tracking techniques, that both males and females occupy home ranges that did not overlap those of others of their sex; home ranges of females measured approximately 20 sq. km (8 sq. miles) while males had much larger ones, measuring 60 – 100 sq. km (23 – 40 sq. miles). Each resident male’s range encompassed those of several females. Transient animals occasionally moved through the ranges of residents, but never remained there for long. By comparison, in the Soviet far East, where the prey is scattered and makes large seasonal movements, the density of tigers is low, less than one adult per 100 sq. km (40 sq. miles).
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Tigers employ a variety of methods to maintain exclusive rights to their home range. Urine, mixed with anal gland secretions, is sprayed onto trees, bushes and rocks along trails, and fences and scraps are left in conspicuous places throughout the area. Scratching trees may also serve to signpost. These chemical and visual signals convey much information to neighboring animals, which probably come to know each other by smell. Males can learn the reproductive condition of females, and intruding animals are informed of the resident’s presence, thus reducing the possibility of direct physical conflict and injury, which the solitary tiger cannot afford as it depends on its own physical health to obtain food. The importance of marking was evident in the Nepal study, when tigers which failed to visit a portion of their home range to deposit these “occupied” signals (either due to death or confinement with young) lost the area in three to four weeks to neighboring animals. This indicates that boundaries are continually probed and checked and that tigers occupying adjacent ranges are very much aware of each others presence.
The long-term exclusive use of a home range confers considerable advantages on the occupant. For a female, familiarity with an area is important, as she must kill prey with some regularity to raise young. When the young are small and unable to follow she must obtain food from a small area, as she has to return to suckle them at regular intervals. Later, when her young are larger and growing rapidly she must be able to find and kill enough prey to feed herself and the young.
Territorial advantages for male seem to be different; they maintain ranges three or four times larger than those of females, so food is not likely to be the critical factor. What matters is access to females and paternity of cubs. Males are not directly involved in the rearing of young. Although there is not as much evidence as for lions, several instances have been reported of male tigers killing cubs. These are usually associated with the acquisition of one male’s home range by another. By killing the offspring of the previous male, incoming male ensures that females in his newly acquired range come into heat and bear his offspring.
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