Skip to Main Content
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance logo
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Library logo

Tiger (Panthera tigris) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature


  • Historical notes
    • 8 subspecies recognized historically, 9 currently (Kitchener and Yamaguchi 2010)
    • Historically, subspecies were defined by physical characteristics and distribution
    • Some question scientific validity of dividing tigers into subspecies (Kitchener and Yamaguchi 2010)
      • Several subspecies defined from a very small number of specimens
      • Physical characteristics vary widely within but not between subspecies
      • Continental populations were probably contiguous in the past
    • Recent genetic studies confirmed distinctness of extant (living) subspecies and added Malayan tiger as a subspecies (Luo et al. 2004)
  • Extant (living) subspecies
    • 6 extant subspecies (Yue-Chen et al. 2018)
      • P. t. altaica (Amur tiger or Siberian tiger)
      • P. t. amoyensis (South China tiger) - possibly extinct in wild
        • No confirmed sightings in wild since 1970s, no evidence of presence in 2001-2002 field surveys - likely no viable populations remain (Tilson 2004)
        • Chinese zoos house what may be the only remaining South China tigers
          • 2001: 47 specimens in Chinese Zoos - derived from 6 founders, extreme lack of genetic diversity (Tilson 2004)
          • 2013: 100+ specimens in Chinese Zoos (pers. comm. Lori Gallo)
      • P. t. corbetti (Indochinese tiger)
      • P. t. jacksoni (Malayan tiger) - recognized as new subspecies in 2004
        • Distinct from P. t. corbetti according to mitochondrial and microsatellite DNA analysis (Luo et al. 2004)
        • Mazák and Groves (2006) argue against defining it as a subspecies, due to similarities in anatomy and appearance and contiguous distribution with P. t. corbetti
      • P. t. sumatrae (Sumatran tiger)
        • Considered by Mazák and Groves (2006) to be a distinct species
      • P. t. tigris (Bengal tiger, a.k.a. Indian tiger)
  • Recently extinct subspecies
    • 3 extinct subspecies
      • P. t. balica (Bali tiger)
        • Last specimens taken in 1930s, likely extinct in 1940s; none in zoos (Seidensticker 1987)
      • P. t. sondaica (Javan tiger)
        • Last sighting mid-1970s (Seidensticker 1987)
        • Considered by Mazák and Groves (2006) to be a distinct species
      • P. t. virgata (Caspian tiger, a.k.a. Hyrcanian or Turan tiger)
        • Last sighting early 1970s (Nowell and Jackson 1996)
        • Genetically nearly identical to Amur tigers (Driscoll et al. 2009)
          • Shared ancestor of Caspian and Amur tigers likely migrated intro central Asia from eastern China through the Gansu Corridor (site of the Silk Road)
          • Restricted gene flow between Chinese and central Asian populations led to the evolution of distinct but closely related subspecies
          • Physical "bottleneck" limited genetic diversity of the Caspian subspecies, which may have been the primary cause of its extinction
          • Some propose introducing Amur tigers into the former range of Caspian tigers, since they are so genetically similar


  • Genus Panthera
    • From Greek panther meaning "panther" or "leopard" (Gove 1971)
    • Probably akin to Sanskrit pundarika ("tiger")
  • Specific epithet tigris
    • From Greek tigris  meaning "tiger" (Gove 1971)
    • Possibly of Iranian origin, akin to Sanskrit tejate ("it is sharp")
  • Subspecies
    • P. t. corbetti
      • Named after Major James E. (Jim) Corbett, 1875-1955
        • British hunter and naturalist in India, conservationist in later years
        • Best-seller about man-eating tigers: Man-Eaters of Kumaon (Corbett 1944)
        • Helped create a natural reserve to protect Bengal tigers (Jim Corbett National Park)
    • P. t. jacksoni
      • Named after tiger conservationist Peter Jackson
        • Former head of the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group (Luo et al. 2010)



  • Divergence of modern cats
    • Geographic origin
      • Share a common ancestor from Asia in Miocene, nearly 11 million years ago (Mya) (Johnson, Eizirik et al. 2006; O'Brien and Johnson 2005, 2007)
        • Ancestor may have been Pseudaelurus, a species of small cat
    • Ancestor of mid- and large-sized cats
      • Diverged from a common ancestor in Miocene, 5-8 Mya (O'Brien and Johnson 2007)

Genus Panthera (great cats)

  • Species divergence and diversification
    • Panthera species began to emerge 2-5 Mya (from O'Brien and Johnson 2007; Davis et al. 2010)
      • Tigers and snow leopards diverged first
        • c. 2.7-3.7 Mya
      • Lions and leopards diverged later
        • c. 1.95-3.1 Mya
      • Jaguars diverged from lion-leopard lineages
        • c. 2.56-3.4 Mya

Tigers (Panthera tigris)

  • Fossil record
    • Oldest tiger fossils date to 1.66-1.81 Mya (beginning of the Pleistocene) (from Kitchener 1999)
      • Possibly as long as 2 Mya
    • Distribution of Pleistocene fossils
      • Recorded in Central Asia, China, Japan, Siberia, Sumatra, Java, India, Borneo, and the region of the Bering land bridge (Mazák 1981; Kitchener 1999)
  • Subspecies divergence
    • See Yue-Chen et al. (2018)
    • All subspecies arose from an ancestor that lived approximately 110,000 years ago (Luo et al. 2004; Yue-Chen et al. 2018))
    • The Indochinese tiger (P. t. corbetti) may be most similar to this ancestor, since it shows the greatest genetic diversity of all the subspecies (Luo et al. 2004)

Cultural History

Symbolism, myths, and legends

  • Spiritual symbol or being (from Thapar 2004 unless otherwise noted)
    • Tiger featured in Hindu and Buddhist paintings as strong spiritual symbol (Jackson 1999)
    • Sacred Buddhist texts include stories in which tiger symbolizes obstruction to attainment of nirvana, and tale of a wandering monk who sacrificed his body to save the lives of a starving female tiger and her cubs
    • In China, male tiger was a god of war who fought demons and protected the living and dead; ancient Chinese believed wind was created by tiger's breath
    • Warli tribal peoples of India believed tiger was the greatest of all gods
    • Udege tribal peoples of Siberia believed tiger was the spirit of the taiga and guardian of trees and mountains
    • Mnong tribespeople of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia believed tiger was first among animals and had intense supernatural powers, including ability to transform into a human
  • Protector and guardian (from Thapar 2004)
    • Many in Korea believe tiger's image repels evil spirits and protects people's fortunes
    • Tribal peoples in Malaysia and Indonesia believed that souls of ancestors dwelled in tigers, and protective spirits ("were-tigers") could change between human and tiger form to link past and present
  • Symbol of power (from Thapar 2004)
    • Chinese soldiers once dressed in imitation tiger skins and tails for protection
    • Tiger-striped pillows are still used in China to keep away nightmares
  • Symbol of healing, regeneration, fertility (from Thapar 2004)
    • In traditional Chinese medicine, body of tiger believed to hold miraculous cures
    • Across Malaysia and Indonesia, people believed tiger shaman could perform miraculous cures
    • For past 3,000 years in Shaanxi Province, China, brides have been presented with 2 dough tigers on arrival at husband's house
  • Folk tales common across Asia
    • Man-eating tigers, spirit tigers, men able to turn into tigers, tiger hunts, anti-tiger spells (Jackson 1999)

Art and Literature

  • Earliest tiger images (from Thapar 2004 unless otherwise noted)
    • 3,000-1,700 BC - prehistoric rock art across Indian subcontinent
      • Tiger hunts portrayed in rock shelter paintings, Bhimbetka, India
    • Stone seals and clay tablets of the Indus civilization
      • Oldest seal discovered (ca. 5,000 years old) shows man seated in tree scolding a retreating tiger (Mackay 1934)
  • Roman Empire mosaics
    • Tigers often associated with Greek god Dionysis (Thapar 2004)
  • Early Indian art
    • Tiger hunts; tigers as symbols of divine and human power (Thapar 2004)
  • Hindu Vedas
    • Tiger feared as a predator, linked with sorcery and power (Thapar 2004)
  • Early Chinese literature
    • Tigers featured in stories, symbolism, spells (Thapar 2004)
  • European literature
    • "Then imitate the action of the tiger, Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage" - from Henry V (William Shakespeare, ca. 1599)
    • "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright, In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry?" - from The Tyger (William Blake, 1794)
    • Bengal tiger Shere Khan featured in the Jungle Book (Rudyard Kipling, 1894)

Historic notes and events (from Thapar 2004 unless otherwise noted)


  • Ancient Indian Festivals
    • Celebrations for the tiger god feature ritual dancers painted with tiger stripes
  • Europe
    • First recorded evidence of a tiger in Europe c. 300 BC
      • Animal presented to the people of Athens by King Seleucus of Syria
    • Use and appearance of tigers in the Roman Empire
      • Tigers and other wild animals used for entertainment
        • Individuals forced to fight hunters or other wild animals in private and public exhibitions; used for public executions
      • Emperor Augustus received first specimens from Indian visitors in 19 BCE
  • Zoological menageries and parks
    • Late 13th century China
      • Kublai Khan kept tigers in menagerie, trained them as hunting companions
    • 1120 CE England
      • First record of a tiger within the country, kept by King Henry I
  • Tiger hunting as a sport
    • Tigers targeted as trophies
    • Hunting reached peak in late 19th century India
      • c. 80,000 tigers killed between 1875-1925
  • "Year of the Tiger"
    • Celebrated every 12 years in China (Jackson 1999)
    • Children wear tiger cap, and slippers; the character Wang ("king") is painted on the forehead (as it resembles markings on a tiger's forehead) (Jackson 1999)

Popular cultural references

  • Documentary appearances
    • Tiger: Spy in the Jungle - 2008, BBC Wildlife Special
      • This 3 part series that David Attenborough narrates involves the lives of four growing tiger cubs
    • Lost Land of the Tiger- 2010, BBC
      • Documentary following a team of big cat experts and wildlife filmmakers as they embark upon a dramatic expedition searching for tigers hidden in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan
    • Broken Tail: A Tiger's Last Journey - 2011, PBS
      • Season 29 of Nature, this episode takes a look at how poachers have altered the Ranthambhore National Park natural reserve in northern India.


Describer: Linnaeus (1758)

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Family: Felidae - all modern cats

Subfamily: Pantherinae

Genus: Panthera

Species: Panthera tigris - tiger

Subspecies: P. t. altaica - Amur tiger (a.k.a. Siberian tiger)
Subspecies: P. t. amoyensis - South China tiger (possibly extinct in wild)
Subspecies: P. t. corbetti - Indochinese tiger
Subspecies: P. t. jacksoni - Malayan tiger
Subspecies: P. t. sumatrae - Sumatran tiger
Subspecies: P. t. tigris - Bengal tiger
Subspecies: P. t. balica - Bali tiger (extinct)
Subspecies: P. t. sondaica - Javan tiger (extinct)
Subspecies: P. t. virgata - Caspian tiger (extinct)

Page Citations

Corbett (1944)
Davis et al. (2010)
Driscoll et al. (2009)
Jackson (1999)
Johnson, Eizirik et al. (2006)
Kitchener (1999)
Kitchener and Yamaguchi (2010)
Luo et al. (2004)
Luo et al. (2010)
Mazák (1981)
Mazák and Groves (2006)
Nowell and Jackson (1996)
O'Brien and Johnson (2005, 2007)
Seidensticker (1987)
Sunquist et al. (1999)
Thapar (2004)
Tilson (2004)

SDZWA Library Links