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Education

Color Variation of Tiger

It has been said that if there were as many tigers are there are house cats, there would be as many colors of tigers are there are colors of house cats. I don't know if that would be true, but there are definitely different colors of tigers. 
The orange colored tiger with black stripes is, of course, the most prevalent. There are different shades of orange ranging from almost yellow to dark burnt orange.


The stripes also vary in shade, size and abundance. Some tigers will have dark, wide stripes while some have fewer stripes that are narrower.

It is interesting to note that every stripe pattern is unique. No two tigers are marked the same, much like a person's fingerprints. 


A tiger is born with all the stripes it will ever have, and there appears to be more stripes than coloring. But as the cub grows the stripes move farther apart because everything is expanded at the same rate. It's kind of like writing on a rubber band while it is stretched. Relaxing it causes the letters to appear closer together. 

Color and striping is controlled by gene groups that are inherited from the parent's genes, the same as hair color in humans. A person may have dark hair and that would be the trait they most likely would pass on to their children, especially if both parents have the same color gene.

If one parent has a dark hair, and the other has blond hair, the child will usually have dark hair because the gene for dark hair is dominant. In order for the child to have blonde hair, the parent with dark hair must also have a recessive gene for blonde hair. Then the child has a 50/50 chance to have either color hair.

Recessive genes are what cause different color variations - in tigers as well as people. It is what causes a white tiger to be born from two standard colored parents. 
For example, suppose you have blonde hair and both your parents have dark hair, and the postman is not responsible. That would mean that somewhere in the ancestry of both your parents, there would be someone with blonde hair.
If both parents have dark hair but carry the recessive gene for blonde hair, there is a one in four chance that the child will have blonde hair.

There are three definite colors of tigers; standard orange with black stripes, white with black or dark stripes, and the golden tiger with cinnamon stripes. For the sake of simplicity I will stay away from the scientific terms such as heterozygous (white gene carrier) and melanistic (black; the color phase of your black cat is called melanistic) and use the layman's terms. 

Why are there different colors in the first place? The answer I will provide here is based on both scientific evidence and my personal theories. I am aware that I am opening myself up to much criticism, but what the heck: I was not around the hundreds or thousands of years ago when tiger colors were being defined, and neither was anyone is the scientific or zoological community, so I figure that my theories are as good as theirs.

Tigers, like most predators, use coloring as camouflage. If their prey cannot see them they can get closer before the actual attack and are more likely to have dinner. The tiger's normal colors of orange with black stripes allows them to blend easily in the jungles or in grass. Their stark white areas break up the pattern, as sunlight would through trees, bushes or grass.

Tigers attack with a burst of speed. They are able to cover short distances with remarkable quickness, but they are too heavy, and use too much energy to cover any significant distance. Given notice, gazelle and sambar can easily outrun a tiger.

This is why the unique and beautiful color of the tiger is essential to their survival, so they can get close enough to their prey before it is aware that it

It is said that a white tiger would have no chance of survival in the wild, that their coloring provides no camouflage to speak of. Although white is a good camouflage color (try to spot a white cockatoo in a green tree), white tigers do not camouflage well in a jungle setting. 
On the other hand, a normal colored tiger is very difficult to spot in foliage even when you know where they are.

So why are there white tigers in the first place? Many in the zoological community seem to think that white tigers were the result of an errant gene mutation, and there was never a significant number of them in the wild.

However, I have a different theory that I have held for a long time.

It is generally accepted that the Bengal, Indochinese and other Asian tigers migrated there from colder climates hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago. 

That is easy for me to believe, because if you know tigers at all you know that they have difficulty tolerating hot climates even today. But they are entirely comfortable taking a nap on a frozen over pool. Our tigers are far more active in cooler or cold weather than during the summer months.

If this is true, then we have to take another look at camouflage and white tigers.

Given the obvious facts; 1) there is a lot of snow in colder climates, 2) tigers like colder weather and are adept in the snow, and 3) a white tiger would camouflage better in snow that a normal orange colored tiger, is it possible that the ancestors of today's tigers were white? Polar bears are white so they will blend with the environment. Did you ever see a black polar bear? If white tigers camouflaged better in the snow country, they would have been more successful in killing prey, and therefore stronger and producing more like themselves. A darker tiger would have not eaten as well and most likely would not have survived. As the tigers began moving to the warmer climates the reverse would take place, with the white tigers having problems. It would make sense that the tigers who ate better would be stronger, live longer and produce more like themselves.

Many zoological "experts" have proposed to breed the white tigers to extinction; that is, do not breed any tigers that are white or carry the white gene and eventually there will be no more. Many institutions have made a lot of money in the past by exhibiting white tigers. In the mid-80's it was reported that there were less than 300 white tigers in existence, and the going price for them was between $60,000 and $100,000.Today, that number is more likely in the thousands, and they can be purchased in the private market for sometimes well under $10,000. It is interesting that now, when white tigers are available to any interested party, those who profited from them immensely want them to be extinct.

Their reasoning is that all white tigers in this country today are descendants of Mohini, a white tiger who was a direct descendant of Mohan, the first known captive white tiger.

Mohini was brought to this country in 1960, and was the result of extensive inbreeding. The inbreeding continued here, and as a result, many of the white tiger cubs today are born with debilitating deformities, and must be destroyed.
Those who grow into adulthood often suffer from hip and back problems, weakened immune systems and crossed eyes. (See the White Tigers of Rewa.)

But many believe there is another bloodline of white tigers in this country, myself included. And if this can be proven, we should not allow white tigers to become extinct until we know more about the first tigers, and their true colors. There must be a reason they are white. 

At Tiger Haven, we have learned from the different colors of tigers here, and from other experts, that the cats of different colors have different characteristics and disposition traits associated with each color. What is this an indication of?

We do know that the larger of many species are the gentler, i.e., palm cockatoos, hyacinth macaws, whales, and Siberian tigers. Is it possible that the larger has fewer enemies and therefore less reason for ferocity?
And if this is true, what is the significance of the different traits of different colored tigers?

Even though white tigers are born from pure Bengal tigers, they are always larger and have more fur. So the gene group that produces white tigers also make them more adaptable for cold weather.

White tigers always have blue eyes. Lighter colors reflect light better. Could this help the white tiger to see their prey better when the sunlight is reflecting off the snow?

The scientific communities are constantly replacing what was thought to be fact with new fact. It was taught as true yesterday, but something else is true today. 

It is my position that no color of tiger be allowed or forced to become extinct until we know more about why there are different colors in the first place. It is possible that in the white tiger we are seeing a tiger that is much older than those swiftly becoming extinct in the wild.

"OK . . . but wait! What about the Siberian tigers? They still live in the cold country," you exclaim.

True. But what do we know about the Siberian tigers? They are larger and very distinct from the other subspecies. They have more fur and are usually darker in color. They are thinner when seen from the front or rear. They have a knot on the back of their head that looks like someone placed an egg under their scalp. They usually have more white around their eyes and a gentle, teddy-bear look to their face.

But, of course, we don't know what we don't know. Russia has only recently allowed any significant study on the tigers there. When did the Siberian tiger arrive in Siberia? Was it before, or after the species' coats became predominately orange?

Extremely rare, and strikingly beautiful, the golden tiger, or golden tabby as it is often called, in a unique and individual color in its own right. They range in color from light gold to reddish gold. Their stripes are cinnamon colored rather than black. At last count (12/97) there were less than thirty golden tigers in the world, all in captivity. 

The first appearance of the golden tiger in captivity was in 1983, when an unusual cub was born to Croatian born Dr. Josip Marcan. Dr. Marcan had over thirty years experience in tiger husbandry at that time, and is considered an international authority on tiger behavior and husbandry today.

The cub was born from standard colored Bengal tigers. There were two cubs in the litter, one standard and the golden cub. Dr. Marcan was surprised and elated, but he knew what he had. He had worked with tigers and studied them in different parts of the world all his adult life. And he had researched the genetics of tiger coat colors and knew of sightings of the golden tiger in India in the early 1900's.

All golden tigers are Bengal and the result of a recessive gene the same as with white tigers. Which brings up a question; was the golden tiger part of a possible evolution from white to the now normal orange? Golden tigers are also larger and furrier than their standard siblings, and their fur is softer. 

The golden tiger is not recognized by the zoological community as a pure Bengal tiger so it is unlikely that you will see them in zoos. That is unfortunate for the public at large  because they will be deprived from seeing such magnificent display of natural beauty. Had the first golden tiger been born to an AZA zoo participating in the Species Survival Plan, I suspect these tigers would have been almost the sensation the first white tigers were.

Some say that the golden tiger is actually a hybrid. One fellow told me that golden tigers are produced by breeding a liger (lion/tiger hybrid) with a white tiger. Balderdash. Cross breeding always produces a combination of the two species, or races. For example, breed a horse with a donkey and you get a mule, which is a combination of the two. Breed a lion and a tigress and you get ligers. It makes no difference how many cubs are born, they are all ligers. You don't get one lion cub and two tiger cubs. Ligers always have faint stripes from the tiger side, but most of their traits comes from the lion.

If Caucasian and Oriental humans produce children they are a combination of characteristics of both parents.

On the other hand, golden, white and orange cubs have been born from normal orange colored parents, in the same litter. This would not be possible with cross species breeding. 

The proposition that there was at one time a species of white tiger, in its own right, is my own theory and is not based upon any scientific findings, although it is held by others who know tigers. As far as I know, there has been no research into that possibility, although there should be.

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