Panthera tigris, more familiar to us as the Tiger, is one of Nature's triumphs. An indomitable apex predator, as a spiritual and physical presence there are few animals that can invoke as much awe. |
For those with a desire to experience the spectacular power and beauty of this big cat for themselves, a dedicated Tiger safari into the subcontinental nature reserves of India provides the opportunity to observe it in its natural habitat. Understanding as much as possible about the animal before embarking on a Tiger safari affords participants a better insight into the big cat, which can only serve to enhance the experience.
Learning some basic information about the animal's anatomy is an excellent place to start.
Size and Build
These big cats are purpose-built to fulfil their job as one of the world's most efficient hunters. Fast, sleek and muscular, their physique enables them to successfully immobilise and kill prey much larger than their own body weight, and their forelimbs are exceptionally powerful. The hind legs are longer than the front ones, which affords them a wide reach when they pounce. Fully-grown males can reach over 3.3m from nose to tip of tail and weigh over 300kg, while females are generally smaller.
The coat is their most distinctive characteristic, of course, with every animal's markings unique. Just like human fingerprints, scientists and researchers can use an animal's stripes to identify them. Depending on the species, the hue of the coat can range from lighter yellow to a deep orange, with dark brown or black stripes. The underbelly and inside of the legs are white.
There are also known colour variants, including the striking White Tiger, which is produced from a recessive gene. This blue-eyed genetic anomaly is only found within the Bengal subspecies. They are extremely rare in the wild, so will almost certainly not be encountered on a Tiger safari – although they are intentionally bred in some zoos.
Jaws, Paws and Claws
As a highly efficient predator, the big cat's jaws and claws are its trade – and both are razor-sharp. Their powerful jaws enable them to latch onto prey and bring them down in one fell swoop, killing them instantly with a bite to the spinal cord or carotid artery, or by suffocation. Their canine teeth are among the largest of all felids.
The claws on each foot can be more than 10cm in length, with five on each front paw (including the 'dew' claw) and four on the rear. The front dew claws do not touch the ground, meaning optimal sharpness is preserved and they're able to grasp their prey with lethal precision. The claws also have protective sheaths so that they're not exposed when not needed and they can remain as sharp as possible.
The big cat also uses its claws to mark its territory by scratching into tree trunks with deep longitudinal markings. The paws contain glands between the toes, which produce secretions identifying them to other big cats and, once again, to mark their territory.
While Tigers' binocular eyesight is as good as ours during the day, it's their exceptional night vision that allows them to carry out their nocturnal hunting habits. Due to the shape and construction of their eyes they can see up to six times better than humans in the dark. The retina is comprised of rod receptors and a second reflective lens, which allows them to perceive even very slight movements under the cover of darkness.
While the study of its behaviours, anatomy and characteristics is ongoing, new research methods and extensive conservation programmes are revealing more and more about this most magnificent big cat.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Tigers. Being passionate about her subject, Marissa chooses the expert-led Tiger safari holidays organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
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