Panthera Tigris, which we know as tigers, are iconic wild cats. Their beautiful striped coats and sheer size attract great admiration. These solitary animals give off an aura of strength and independence. Tigers have some pretty interesting things about them that you should really know. Did you know that a tiger’s urine smells like buttered popcorn? Or that tigers are born blind like other wild cats? Read on as we cover in this article 22 amazing and sometimes surprising tiger facts.
Related: For more tiger inspiration, check out our picks of some of the best tiger sayings and quotes inspiring us to think about protecting these incredible big cats. And talking big cats, you might also like to browse our lion facts & leopard facts.
Typically tigers have a reddish-orange coat with black stripes, but some tiger subspecies have paler fur with dark brown stripes. Tiger stripes are present when the cubs are newborns; they lay along the flanks and shoulders in varying sizes, lengths, and spacing. Every tiger has a unique stripe pattern; no two are identical, much like human fingerprints.
The underside of a tiger's belly and limbs, its chest, throat, and muzzle are white or light-colored. The cheeks and the areas above the eyes and behind the ears have white fur. Several dark bands ring the tiger’s reddish-orange tail.
Tigers have long bodies, thick, short necks, broad and massive forelimbs with long retractable claws, and broad forepaws. Male and female tigers don't have distinct features that differentiate them apart from their genitals. However, the males are bigger and heavier than the females5.
Although we can find tigers in zoos and under private ownership anywhere in the world today, tigers are natives of several regions. We find Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris Tigris) in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and China. Siberian tigers (Panthera tigris altaica) are native to Russia, and Indochinese tigers (Panthera tigris corbetti) are from Cambodia, China, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Naturally, we find South China tigers (Panthera tigris amoyensis) in south-central China and Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae) are native to the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Bali tigers (Panthera Tigris Balica), Javan tigers (Panthera Tigris Sondaica) and Caspian tigers (Panthera Tigris virgata) are now extinct. They were native to the islands of Bali, Turkey, Iran, and Central Asia, respectively.
Tigers are adaptable to a range of habitats. They live in tropical rainforests, grass jungles, savannas, monsoonal forests, oak and birch scrub woodlands, mangrove swamps, and dry thorn forest. There just needs to be a water source, sufficient prey, and vegetation.
Tigers can withstand a broad range of climatic conditions. From warm moist weather to extreme snowfall with –40 degrees Celsius temperatures.
Tigers only eat meat, but their pallet is rather large. Tigers hunt hoofed animals like wild boar, deer, and buffalo. They also eat crocodiles, monkeys, porcupines, and sloth bears. These wild cats have also been known to kill and eat leopards, another type of big cat. Tigers are fierce, and we know one to have dragged a gaur bull weighing 700 kg.
Tigers are primarily nocturnal hunters. They leverage their strength with stealth to ambush prey. A tiger attacks and tackles its prey to the ground or bite or break its neck with its sharp teeth and powerful jaws. Hard papillae covering a tiger’s tongue makes it extremely coarse, which helps them scrape the flesh off the bones of their prey.
Zoo tigers eat a special diet that looks like ground beef, beef chunks, frozen-thawed rabbits, and bones.
Tigers have a special day when the whole world celebrates their awesomeness. And why not? Tigers play a big role in the ecosystem and many cultures. July 29 is International Tiger Day.
In Asian folklore and traditional art, the tiger makes a lot of appearances. In Hindu mythology, the goddess Durga rides on a tiger. Ancient Indian Gupta emperor Samudra minted special gold coins that depicted him slaying tigers4.
People born in the year of the tiger— the 12th year of the Chinese calendar — are believed to be blessed with power and luck. Despite scientific evidence that proves otherwise, many people still believe in using the body parts of tigers as medicine, talismans, or tonics works.
A tiger can make many different sounds, including grunts, snarls, moans, bellows, growls, and chuffs. They roar too - although a tiger’s roar is not as impressive as that of a lion. However, although tigers belong to the cat species, unlike domestic cats, they can not purr, unlike domestic cats.
Tigers also communicate through facial expressions, visual signals, and scent markings. They use urine, claws marks, or their facial expression to warn trespassers. When a tiger smells a cub, an estrous tigress, or scent marks of another tiger, it makes a facial expression we call flehmen. The flehmen show a wrinkled nose, tongue hanging over the incisors, and bared upper canines.
When it comes to size, tigers win. Of all the big cats, tigers are the largest. Siberian tigers are the largest among tiger species, measuring about 10 feet from nose to tail tip. An adult male weighs over 423kg, and the adult female weighs 168 kg, growing to 7 feet.
The Sumatran tiger is the smallest tiger subspecies; it only grows to about 8 feet. An adult male weighs 136 kg, while an adult female weighs 91 kg and is about 6 feet.
Interestingly, some people think the tiger's urine smells like buttered popcorn. Tiger poop, on the other hand, smells particularly awful but is an excellent indicator of the tiger's state of health. Zookeepers keep track of a female tiger’s breeding cycle by sending samples of its poop to be tested for hormone levels.
When hunting or wandering, rivers don't present any challenges to the tiger. Tigers are excellent swimmers and easily cross 6-8km rivers. They have been known to cross the width of 29 km in water.
Tigers are also competent climbers. They use their retractable claws and powerful legs to propel themselves up against trees or inclines swiftly. A tiger can jump across a distance of 8 to 10 meters, although they usually take leaps half that distance.
Naturally, tigers don't mate with other wild cats, but people have bred tigers with lions in captivity. The offspring of a tigress and a lion is a liger, and the offspring of a tiger and a female lion is called a tigon. Ligers are enormous; they stand at around 5 feet and can weigh a thousand pounds1. That is twice the weight of any of their parents.
Big cat conservationists have reservations about this cross-species breeding. Some believe it could eventually lead to infertility or some yet to be known defects. Also, these hybrids may have no conservation values, and they are simply exotic curiosities.
Unlike lions that form groups we call prides, tigers prefer to live alone. They only make exceptions when mating or raising cubs.
Male tigers do not participate in caring for their young. Tiger cubs stay with their mothers for the first 2-3 years of their lives before they learn to hunt. After they become self-reliant, tiger cubs leave home. The young female tiger will often choose territories close to home, but the males tend to move farther away from home.
The solitary nature of tigers reduces the chances of conflicts over territory, although such conflicts sometimes occur.
If you are a fan of big roomy homes, you may have something in common with tigers. A tiger's territory or home range depends on the abundance of prey; a large range may indicate prey scarcity, and a smaller range, an abundance of prey. Female Bengal tigers have a typical territory size of 200 to 1000 square kilometers. The male’s territory is 2 to 15 times larger than that of the females.
Tigers maintain several dens within their territory. These dens may be a tree hollow, a cave, among dense vegetation, or in a cavity under a fallen tree. Tigers may defend their territory or share overlapping areas peacefully, especially with tigresses. A tiger may also be a nomad all its life, with no permanent home. A wandering tiger can walk as much as 16 to 32 kilometers in one night.
In the wild, tigers may live for 8 to 10 years, although some are lucky to live in their 20's. Life expectancy in captivity is about 16 to 18 years, but we have known tigers to live up to 26 years.
The reasons for shorter life expectancy in the wild include fatal injuries from large prey and human persecution. Young tigers are especially vulnerable as they begin living solitary lives; adult male tigers may even attack and eat them. Some researchers put the survival rate for young tigers at 50%.
No two tigers live together, but female tigers make an exception for their young cubs. Male tigers, however, do not play any parental roles. Female tigers go into estrus every 3 to 9 weeks but have a gestation period of 96 to 111 days. They produce offspring of 1-7 cubs every 3 to 4 years.
Newborn cubs are born blind and solely depend on their mothers for survival. Mother tigers nurse their cubs for about 90 to 100 days before weaning occurs. A mother increases her killing rate by 50% so she can get enough nutrition to satisfy herself and her offspring.
The mothers begin teaching the cubs to hunt and kill prey at 18 months, and by three years, the young tigers are ready for independence.
Tigers use their well-developed sense of touch aided by whiskers to hunt, sense danger, and navigate safely in darkness. They use their whiskers to detect movement even before their eyes quite see it. The root of a tiger’s whiskers is buried deep in the skin, and a small capsule of blood surrounds the root. When the whisker touches anything, the blood in the capsule is displaced, and sensory nerves send signals to the brain for interpretation.
A tiger has five types of whiskers on its body3. We find the superciliary whiskers just above the eyes, and the mystacial whiskers are on the snout. Next are the cheek whiskers, located on the cheeks behind the mystacial whiskers. We find the carpal whiskers on the back of the forelimbs, and the tylotrich whiskers are randomly placed on the rest of the tiger’s body.
The tiger’s eyes are designed for optimal night vision, and they only need one-sixth of the amount of light human eyes require to see clearly. They have large pupils and lenses that let in a lot of light and enable them to hunt well at night.
At the back of their eyes is a mirror-like structure called a tapetum lucidum. It reflects light already absorbed into the eyes back into the eyes a second time to produce brighter images. The tapetum lucidum is what makes a cat's eyes glow when light is shown directly on them.
The eyes of a tiger are facing forward rather than sideways. This enables the giant cats to perceive depth and distance accurately. The tiger’s eye has more rods in it than cones. Rods are responsible for the visual acuity of shapes, while cones enable color vision. So tigers see fewer colors but can estimate size and shape clearly.
The tiger may not have the sharpest sense of smell, but its hearing is superb. Generally, cats can hear sounds at 60kHz, while around 20kHz is the limit for humans. In addition to the high auditory range, the tiger’s ears can rotate, somewhat like a dish. The rotation helps them pick up sounds even better, especially when stalking prey.
Herbivores feed on plants, and if their population grows unchecked, it results in pressure on the plant community. Tigers prey on large herbivores, which helps keep their population in check. We consider tigers a keystone species for their role in herbivore population control.
It may be difficult to imagine a ferocious tiger in danger, but tigers are critically endangered. Of all the tiger subspecies native to Asia, three are extinct. They are the Bali tiger, Caspian tiger, and Javan tiger. The Siberian tiger, Indochinese tiger, and Bengal tiger are endangered, while the South China tiger, Malayan tiger, and Sumatran tiger are critically endangered.
As the 20th century was ending, the tiger population in the wild had reduced to about 5,000 to 7,500 from the estimated 100,000 at the beginning of the century—today, tigers in the wild number around 3,200 individuals. There are only about a dozen South China tigers left in the wild.
The most used excuse for killing off large cats like tigers is that they can attack humans. But tigers usually would avoid human contact. On rare occasions, tigers may attack and eat a human. Some people tell an unconfirmed story about a man-eating tigress that killed over 400 people.
There are thoughts as to why a tiger may become a man-eater. Some suggested reasons are that the tigers are old, sick, or crippled and can not hunt prey as normal. Or that prey is no longer plentiful or that humans overtake tiger habitats. Without proper intervention, competition over natural resources between humans and tigers can increase negative interactions between humans and tigers.
Humans have encroached on 93% of historical tiger habitats2. Every day, humans build new houses clear forests for farming and factories. These activities directly result in habitat loss for tigers, which only increases their chances of being killed in confrontations with humans.
The illegal wildlife trade is also a big problem, especially because some assume tiger bones are potent cures in traditional Asian medicine.
Tigers are at the top of the food chain in their natural habitat yet remain endangered. Various wildlife NGOs are making efforts to save the tigers we have now from becoming extinct too. The World Wildlife Fund is a pioneer in tiger conservation.
Governments are also making some efforts. In the 1970s, most countries where tigers lived banned hunting tigers for sport and trading tiger skin. A few years later, in 1973, India declared the tiger as the national animal and launched a conservation program. The International Forum on Tiger Conservation set a goal to double the number of tigers in 13 countries hosting tiger populations. They intend to do this by 2022.
After knowing some fantastic facts about tigers, surely you would agree that it would be such a shame if all tigers went extinct. But that is what illegal wildlife trading and habitat encroachment will cause. You can help save tigers by supporting tiger conservation organizations. Also, refuse to buy clothes, accessories, or medicines made by killing tigers.
Jani Hall (2017) Cat experts: ligers and other designer hybrids pointless and unethical. National Geographic Magazine
Where do tigers live? and other facts. World Wildlife Fund.
All about tigers. Seaworld Parks & Entertainment.
Tigers and humans. Encyclopaedia Britannica
Panthera tigris. Animal Diversity Web
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.