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Tiger (Panthera tigris) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

Physical Characteristics

Size range (living tiger subspecies) (data from Hunter 2011; Mazák 1981)

Attribute Male Female
Body Weight 100-261 kg (200-575 lb)* 75-177 kg (170-390 lb)
Head & Body Length 189-300 cm (6.20-10 ft) 146-177 cm (4.79-5.81 ft)
Tail Length** 72-109 cm (2.4-3.58 ft) 72-109 cm (2.4-3.58 ft)
Shoulder Length 80-100 cm (3 ft) 80-100 cm (3 ft)

* Males weigh up to 325 kg (716 lb) in zoos
** Usually < 50% of head-body length

General Appearance

Large, powerful cats (from Sunquist and Sunquist 2009)

  • Body muscular
    • Specialized for individual capture and killing of large prey
  • Head
    • Short and broad
  • Neck
    • Short and thick
  • Limbs
    • Shoulders and forearms massive
    • Paws
      • Long, retractable claws on broad forepaws

Pelage

  • Striped coat (from Kitchener and Yamaguchi 2010; Sunquist and Sunquist 2009)
    • Background light colored
      • Varies from pale yellow (tawny) to orange to dark red (cinnamon brown)
      • Darker individuals typically from southereast Asia
      • Paler individuals typically from northern areas
    • Dark vertical stripes on the body
      • Provide camoflage in forests and grasslands
      • Stipe pattern and appearance varies between subspecies
        • Most numerous stripes in tigers from southeast Asia
    • Limbs, head, and tail with stripes
    • Underparts white or cream-colored
    • Ears black
      • White spot on the back of each
  • White tigers
    • Not albinos (from Sunquist and Sunquist 2002)
      • Dark or sepia brown stripes on white background
      • Pink nose and paw pads
      • Blue eyes
    • A rare variant of the Bengal tiger
      • Occasionally found in nature, many have been bred by humans (Roychoudhury 1987)
    • Disease, reproduction, and mortality
      • Coloration associated with higher incidence of eye disorders
        • Greater frequency of crossed eyes and cataracts (Warrick 1987)
      • Coloration associated with reduced fertility and higher cub mortality (Roychoudhury 1987)
    • Genetics and breeding
      • Coloration results from a single recessive mutation in the SLC45A2 gene (Xu et al. 2013)
        • White individuals have two copies (one inherited from each parent)
      • White tigers in managed care have been highly inbred (Roychoudhury 1987; Warrick 2010)
        • In a white tiger pedigree study, all individuals in the surveyed zoos were descended from a single white Bengal male, 'Mohan,' captured in India in 1951 (Roychoudhury 1987)
  • All black (melanistic) tigers
    • No confirmed individuals
      • Individual tigers may appear black as a result of wide stripes close together (Hunter 2011)
    • A few reports from northern India and Bangladesh (Sunquist and Sunquist 2009)
  • Hair characteristics
    • Molt once or twice a year, some populations (Thapar 2004)
      • Amur tigers molt in spring and fall (Kitchener and Yamaguchi 2010)
    • Length and density
      • Varies seasonally (with molt) in some
      • Vary between subspecies (Kitchener & Yamaguchi 2010; Miththapala 1991)
        • Longer, more dense hair among northern subspecies
          • Hair on back: 40-60 mm (1.6-2.4 in)
        • Shorter, less dense hair among southern subspecies
          • Does not show seasonal variation
          • Hair on back: 7-29 mm (0.3-1.1 in)
      • Amur tiger has longest fur on neck, back, and belly
      • Sumatran tiger has largest facial ruff (Miththapala 1991)

Body size (reviewed in Kitchener and Yamaguchi 2010; Sunquist and Sunquist 2009)

  • Among the largest cats
    • Tigers and lions are the largest of the cats (Seidensticker et al. 1999)
      • Tigers and lions are about 4 times the size of the next largest cat (leopards) living within their range (Seidensticker et al. 1999)
      • Tigers are similar in size to lions, although tigers have shorter legs (Seidensticker et al. 1999)
      • Some consider tigers to be the largest cat, but this is debatable (Sunquist and Sunquist 2009)
        • Tigers weigh less than lions on average (Kitchener and Yamaguchi 2010)
          • Average adult male lion: 175 kg (386 lb)
          • Average adult male tiger: 160 kg (353 lb)
        • Some individual adult male tigers may be the largest cats, since tigers exhibit a larger size range than lions (Kitchener and Yamaguchi 2010)
          • Difficult to confirm, due to unreliable reports and variable measurement methods
  • Variation among tigers
    • Tiger size varies widely across range and between subspecies
      • Tiger size tends to vary by latitude (Kitchener 1999)
        • Larger in north
          • Higher mass relative to surface area helps tigers to retain heat in colder climates
        • Smaller in south
          • Lower mass relative to surface area helps tigers to radiate heat in warmer climates
      • Tiger size influenced by other factors (Kitchener 1999)
        • Prey size
        • Amount of food available seasonally
        • Island dwarfing -- species on islands tend to be smaller
    • Smallest of extant (living) subspecies
      • Sumatran tigers (Hunter 2011)
        • Males weigh up to 140 kg (309 lb)
    • Largest of extant subspecies
      • Amur, Bengal, and Caspian tigers (Hunter 2011)
        • Amur males weight up to 325 kg (716 lb)

Subspecific comparisons

  • Size extremes in modern tigers (data from Mazák 1981)
    • Largest tiger - Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica)
    • Smallest tiger - Bali tiger (P. t. balica)
      • Recently extinct subspecies
Amur tigerBali tiger
Body Weight

Male: 180-306 kg (397-675 lb)
Female: 100-167 kg (220-368 lb)

Male: 90-100 kg (198-220 lb)
Female: 65-80 kg (143-176 lb)
Head & Body Length Male: 270-330 cm (8.9-10.8 ft)
Female: 240-275 cm (7.9-9.0 ft)
Male: 220-230 cm (7.0-7.6 ft)
Female: 190-210 cm (6.2-6.9 ft)

Sexual Dimorphism

Dimorphic in size and appearance

  • Most pronounced in northerly subspecies (Kitchener 1999)
  • Males larger than females
    • 1.3-1.6 times larger than females (Seidensticker 1993)
  • Skull of males more massive than females
    • Sagittal crest (mid-line ridge in skull) more pronounced in males (Mazák 1981)
  • Facial appearance
    • Males have a facial ruff (Thapar 2004)
    • Whiskers more prominent in males (Mazák 1981)
  • Paws
    • Wider in males
      • Able to determine an individual's gender by the width of its track (Smirnov and Miquelle 1999)

Other Characteristics

Anatomy

  • Skeleton
    • Very similar to lions (Christiansen 2008)
      • Tigers have nearly straight lower jaw (curves slightly upward in lions)
      • Tigers have longer lower canine teeth than lions
    • Vertebrae
      • 7 neck, 13 thoracic, 7 lumbar, 3 sacral, 25-26 tail (Mazák 1981)
  • Teeth
    • Felids (cat family) have 30 teeth (Kitchener et al. 2010; Mazák 1981)
      • Fewer than in canid and ursid (dog and bear) families
        • Limited by felid's short jaw and large canines
      • On each side:
        • Incisors - 3 upper, 3 lower
        • Canines - 1 upper, 1 lower
        • Premolars - 3 upper, 2 lower
        • Molars - 1 upper, 1 lower
    • Felid teeth are highly specialized for meat-eating (Kitchener et al. 2010)
      • Canines important for killing
      • Carnassials used primarily for slicing
      • Incisors important for removing meat from bone
    • Tigers have exceptionally stout teeth (Mazák 1981)
    • Tigers have the largest canines of any living felid (Mazák 1981)
      • Average length 50.8 mm in one study (Christiansen 2007)
        • Far larger than any other felid except the lion
  • Eyes
    • Pupil circular, iris usually yellow (Mazák 1981)
    • White tigers have blue eyes (Mazák 1981)
  • Ears
    • Rounded, somewhat small (Mazák 1981)
  • Digits
    • 5 toes on forefeet, 4 on rear feet (Mazák 1981)
    • Large curved claws on all toes, 80-100 mm (3-4 in) long (Mazák 1981)

Senses

  • Hearing
    • Tigers have acute hearing (Walsh 2004; Walsh et al. 2008)
      • Can hear from infrasonic to ultrasonic frequency range
      • Greatest sensitivity in the 300-500 Hz range
        • 300 Hz is the frequency most represented in close-encounter roars
      • Can hear infrasonic (below 20 Hz) frequencies not detectable by the human ear
    • A tiger's highly developed hearing is essential for hunting success and communication (Thapar 2004)
      • High-frequency sounds - typical of prey rustling in undergrowth
      • Low-frequency sounds - well-suited for long-distance communication through dense jungles
  • Vision
    • All cats, including tigers, have adaptations that increase sensitivity for nighttime hunting (Thapar 2004)
      • Large pupils and lenses maximize and focus incoming light
      • High concentrations of rods, the most sensitive type of light-receptor cells
      • Reflective layer at the back of the retina amplifies light signals
      • Binocular vision creates a 3-dimensional image
    • Unlike most cats, Panthera have round pupils - better adapted to function in daytime (Kitchener et al. 2010)
  • Smell
    • Sense of smell not as highly developed in cats as in dogs - fewer olfactory (smell-sensing) cells, smaller olfactory bulb in brain (Thapar 2004)
    • Tigers do not rely heavily on smell to locate prey, but they do rely on it for communication (Thapar 2004)
    • As in other cats, tigers have vomeronasal organ (a.k.a. Jacobson's organ) on upper palate that is lined with scent-detecting cells (Thapar 2004)

Tiger (Panthera tigris)

Sumatran Tiger

Sumatran tiger displays powerful build, distinctive coat.

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

 

A white tiger

White tiger 'Blanca'.

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

 

Indochinese tiger

Indochinese tiger displays canines.

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

Page Citations

Christiansen (2008)
Kitchener (1999)
Kitchener et al. (2010)
Mazák (1981)
Roychoudhury (1987)
Miththapala (1991)
Seidensticker and McDougal (1993)
Seidensticker et al. (1999)
Sunquist and Sunquist (2002)
Sunquist and Sunquist (2009)
Tilson (1998)
Xu et al. (2013)

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