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Tiger (Panthera tigris) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

Active both day and night

  • Peak activity (from Sunquist 1981 unless otherwise noted)
    • Prey activity determines activity of tigers
      • Tigers shift schedules to match those of their prey
    • Weather influences daytime activity
      • Less active in very hot weather
      • Modify behavior to remain cool
        • Larger subspecies often regulate body temperature by lying partially submerged in shaded pools or streams for much of the day (Tilson and Nyhus 2010)
  • Hunting by humans alters activity patterns (Sunquist 1981)

Social Behavior

Solitary in wild, most often

  • Less solitary at times
    • Associate most commonly during the short mating season and when young dependent on mother (Mazák 1981; Sunquist 1981)
  • Factors favoring solitary living (Sunquist 1981)
    • Forest habitats not optimal for group communication
      • Reduced visual contact
    • Scattered prey insufficient to support large groups
      • Lone individuals experience lower competition for food
        • A single tiger may feed on its kill for several days with no significant competition from scavengers
  • Prolonged social contact
    • Cubs remain with mothers for 17-24 months (Schaller 1967; Sunquist 1981; Sunquist and Sunquist 2002)
    • Males may associate occasionally with females and cubs
      • Isolated observations in India include male spending time with female and cubs, licking cubs, sharing kills (Thapar 2004)
  • Social behavior in zoos
    • Individuals display a wider range of social behavior than typically seen in the wild (Sunquist 1981)
    • Small groups or pairs live harmoneously together

Play

  • Cubs and juveniles commonly play (from Schaller 1967; reviewed in Fagen 1981)
    • Rough and tumble play
      • Stalk, rush toward, ambush, and pounce playfully on each other
      • Spar and wrestle, roll over one another, mock-bite
      • Rear on hind legs facing each other and swat with paws or grapple
  • Adults may also show play behaviors (Schaller 1967; reviewed in Fagen 1981)
    • Play-wrestling observed in wild, on land and in water (Schaller 1967)

Territory/Home Range

Highly territorial

  • Bengal tiger the focus of key studies (Schaller 1967; Sunquist 1981)
    • Examine tigers in Nepal and India
    • Prey density, habitat, sex, and age influence territorial behavior (Sunquist and Sunquist 2009)
      • All factors influence both territory size and location, though prey density and distribution have a larger influence (Miquelle et al. 1999)
  • Females
    • Occupy small, mutually exclusive territories in many locations (Sunquist and Sunquist 2013)
      • In Sikhote-Alin (Russian Far East) study, female ranges had little overlap (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002)
      • In Kanha (India), females shared their range with other females (Schaller 1967)
    • Scent mark to delineate territory
      • In Chitwan (Nepal), females showed scent marking behavior, site fidelity, and aggressiveness towards other females entering their range (Smith et al. 1987)
  • Males
    • Territories overlap with one or more females (from Smith et al. 1987; Thapar 2004 unless otherwise noted)
      • Typically do not overlap with other males
        • Males in Russian Far East have highly overlapping ranges, although individuals are generally not found in same area at same time (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002)
  • Home range stability
    • May be stable for several years, according to study in Chitwan (Sunquist 1981)

Home range size

  • Female tigers
    • Variable across distribution
      • 10-51 km2 (5-20 sq mi2) in Nagarahole (India) (Karanth 1993 as cited in Sunquist and Sunquist 2002)
      • 13-51 km2 (5-20 sq mi2) in Chitwan (Nepal) (Sunquist and Sunquist 2009)
      • c. 200-400 km2 (80-150 mi2) in Sikhote-Alin (Russian Far East) (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002)
    • Female occupies less of her range when cubs very young (Sunquist and Sunquist 1991)
  • Male tigers
    • c. 2-15 times larger than those of females (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002)
    • Range size varies according to prey density and numbers of females in range (Sunquist and Sunquist 1991)
      • 24-151 km2 (9-58 sq mi2) in Chitwan (Sunquist and Sunquist 2009)
      • c. 800-1,000 km2 (300-400 mi2) in Sikhote-Alin (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002)
    • Male territory expands and contracts according to how many females can be defended
      • Includes as many female ranges as possible (Sunquist and Sunquist 2013)
        • Chitwan study: as many as 5 females (7 in one exceptional case) (Thapar 2004)
        • Sikhote-Alin study: 1-3 females (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002)

Dispersal patterns

  • Adult females
    • Closely related females live near each other (Gour et al. 2013)
      • Beneficial to be familiar with a territory and its resources
      • No competition for males, which are are not a limiting resource
  • Juvenile males
    • Disperse away from their birth area (Gour et al. 2013)
      • Behavior likely evolved to avoid inbreeding and sibling competition

Defensive Behavior

Defensive threats (from Schaller 1967)

  • Facial expressions
    • Canines may be exposed
    • Corners of open mouth pulled back
    • Ears flattened
    • Pupils large
  • Warning behavior (Schaller 1967)
    • May warn off intruder first by growling
    • If ignored, aggression escalates to short rushes and roars

Females defending cubs

  • Attack to protect cubs
    • Known to attack even an elephant in defense of cubs (McDougal 1991)
    • Will fight with and kill a male tiger in defense of cubs (Thapar 2004)

Aggression

Aggressive behavior at kill sites

  • Tigers generally do not share
    • Male tiger at a kill may allow a female to feed from his kill (Schaller 1967)
      • If female has made the kill, male will wait until she has finished

Male aggression toward cubs

  • Not as common as among lions (Sunquist 1981)
    • Males are known to kill cubs

Aggression in defence of territory

  • Fights often severe
    • Fights may result in injury (Smith et al. 1987)

Aggressive threat expressions (from Schaller 1967; Walsh 2004)

  • Facial expressions
    • Mouth closed
    • Ears erect and rotated
      • Back of ear nearly facing forward so that white spots show prominently
    • Pupils small, eyes squinting

Communication

Vocalization

  • Roar
    • Used infrequently, primarily for long-distance communication - to draw attention and make other tigers aware of an individual's presence and location (Schaller 1967)
      • To announce a large kill
      • By a mother to summon her cubs
      • To attract the opposite sex (also during mating)
    • Produced by expelling air through open mouth while closing the mouth (Schaller 1967)
    • Can be heard up to 3 km (1.8 mi) away (Mountfort 1981)
      • Sound waves in infrasonic range (below human hearing) travel long distances, allowing communication between widely scattered individuals (Walsh et al. 2008)
    • Researchers can distinguish individual tigers by their roars with up to 90% accuracy (Ji et al. 2013)
  • Coughing roar
    • In response to another animal approaching a kill, or in challenge to a human (Schaller 1967)
  • Moan
    • Subdued form of a roar, can be heard up to 400 m (0.25 mi) away (Mazák 1981)
  • Purr
    • In dispute whether or not tigers purr (Peters 2002; Walsh 2004)
      • Many believe that tiger's flexible hyoid bone does not allow it to generate a purr in same way as domestic cat
  • Other
    • Grunting, miaowing, woofing, growling, hissing, prusten or chuffing (gentle puffing), and pooking (similar to call of sambar deer) (Schaller 1967; Walsh 2004)
  • Frequency of vocalization
    • Most researchers report that tigers vocalize less often than lions (Schaller 1967; Thapar 2004), although some disagree (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002)
    • Tigers vocalize a great deal during estrus and mating
      • One Bengal tiger in estrus roared 69 times in 15 minutes (Sunquist 1981)
      • Moans, groans, grunts, miaows, growls, and hisses common during mating (Mazák 1981
  • Vocalization recordings (Macaulay Library, Cornell University)

Olfactory signals

  • Scent mark
    • Tigers of both sexes scent-mark their territories, particularly boundaries (Schaller 1967; Thapar 2004)
    • Forms of marking
      • Spray strong-smelling urine on prominent sites, such as base of trees
      • Leave conspicuous piles of feces
      • Rub strongly scented secretions on objects, other tigers, or patches of grass
        • Scrape the ground with feet, roll around in grass, rub cheeks on bark of trees
        • Secretions are produced by scent glands between the toes, around anus, on head, on tail
  • Function of scent
    • A tiger's scent conveys a variety of information to other tigers (Thapar 2004)
      • Age, sex, estrus status; cubs can identify mother's scent
    • Tigers react to strong scents with flehmen response (Mazák 1981; Thapar 2004)
      • Sniffing behavior used by many carnivores - air drawn in with head raised, upper lip curled, nose wrinkled, tongue hanging out
      • Observed in many species - increases flow of scent molecules over vomeronasal organ

Visual signals

  • Scratch to physically mark territories (from Schaller 1967; Thapar 2004)
    • Use paws to leave scrape marks on ground
    • Stand on hind legs to scratch high on trees

Locomotion

Walk and run quadrupedally (from Schaller 1967)

  • Walk for long-distances
    • A tiger typically walks many miles through its range in search of prey
    • In an unsuccessful night of hunting, a tiger may cover about 16-32 km (10-20 mi)
  • Powerful sprinters
    • A tiger typically needs to approach undetected to within about 9-24 m (30-80 ft) of prey before it can successfully rush the prey to bring it down

Swim

  • Powerful swimmers
    • Can cross rivers 6-8 km (4-5 mi) wide (Mazák 1981)
    • Tigers have been seen 11 km (7 mi) out to sea (Thapar 2004)

Climb and leap (from Mazák 1981)

  • Can climb trees
    • During 1969 floods in Bangladesh, many tigers took refuge in trees
  • Leap for 5-6 m (16-20 ft)
    • Rarely, to 8-10 m (26-33 ft)

Interspecies Interactions

Carnivore competitors

  • Aggressive encounters with other large carnivores
    • Dhole (Indian wild dog, Cuon alpinus)
      • Large dhole packs able to deter tigers in confrontations (Venkataraman 1995)
        • Packs observed fighting with tigers, at times killing and eating a tiger (Mountfort 1981; reviewed in Schaller 1967)
          • Many dholes are killed in the fight (Mountfort 1981)
      • Tigers occasionally target and kill dholes
    • Leopards (Panthera pardus)
      • Tigers may kill leopards (Karanth and Sunquist 2000)
    • Tigers may alter activity patterns of leopards and dhole (Steinmetz et al. 2013)

Ungulate prey

  • Aggressive encounters with ungulates
    • Tigers occasionally killed by water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) and gaur (Bos gaurus) (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002)

Aggressive encounters with humans

  • Tigers can kill and eat humans
    • Tigers normally prefer to avoid people and kill them less often than there are opportunities (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002)
      • When provoked, tigers give a warning growl and allow the human to move away
    • Man-eating tigers occur only in parts of the tiger's range
      • Previously a serious problem in South China, Singapore, and Manchuria, until tiger numbers drastically reduced (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002)
      • Still a problem in 3 areas of India and Bangladesh - primarily in mangrove forests where there is a shortage of natural prey (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002)
        • 521 people killed in India's Sudarbans region between 1975-1989
        • About 100-150 people killed annually in Bangladesh's Sundarbans
    • Tigers that kill humans are typically incapacitated by disease/wounds/infection/age, or are transients living in marginal areas (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002)
    • Most people in tiger attacks are squatting down or bending over, creating a "right" form for a prey animal (Seidensticker and McDougal 1993)
    • India has tried creative ways to discourage tiger attacks on humans (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002)
      • Face masks worn on back of head led to a dramatic reduction in human deaths
        • Tigers typically move in from behind for a kill, as prey moves away
      • Negative reinforcement: electrified human dummies in forests shock attacking tigers

Bengal & Malayan Tigers

a Bengal tiger swimming
A cool cat: Bengal tiger at Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, India.


 
Malayan tigers playing
 
Malayan tigers interact at San Diego Zoo.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.
 

Tigers at Play

Sumatran tigers playing
Sumatran tigers engaging in play.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

 

a Sumatran tiger running
Juvenile Sumatran tiger - grace in motion.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Gour et al. (2013)
Mazák (1981)
McDougal (1991)
Mountfort (1981)
Schaller (1967)
Seidensticker (1976)
Seidensticker and McDougal (1993)
Smith et al. (1987)
Sunquist (1981)
Sunquist and Sunquist (1991)
Sunquist et al. (1999, 2002)
Thapar (2004)
Tilson and Nyhus (2010)
Walsh et al. (2008)

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