People are fascinated with cats. The evidence is all over the Internet. We love filming and watching YouTube clips of our feline friends stuffing themselves into boxes, chasing laser pointers, sleeping on our laptops and scaring our dogs.
But, what about their big, striped cousins? While our pet cats’ antics can be endlessly entertaining, they also give us clues about how wild tigers survive.
BORN TO HIDE
Cat owners seem to spend a lot of time looking for their furry buddies, eventually finding them under the bed, nestled in the closet or on top of the refrigerator.
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For tigers, hiding is a way of life. They’re ambush predators, sneaking up on their dinner to catch the animal by surprise. Of course, you can’t have a good surprise without first hiding. So, tigers tend to stick to habitat with lots of cover, such as tall-grass jungles, forests and mangrove swamps.
Their stripe pattern also helps tigers to disappear. Dark stripes break up the silhouette of a tiger’s body, making it difficult for a prey animal to recognize. The rust-orange and white coat blends in well with the brown tones of tall, dry grasses, and the tree trunks, underbrush and fallen leaf-litter.
STALK, JUMP, POUNCE
House cats love to creep up and pounce on things: Potted plants, a dangling foot or the dog’s tail. Tiger cubs play the same way, chasing and pouncing on each other, dried leaves, insects and whatever else they can find. This behavior builds great hunting skills.
As adults, tigers carefully stalk animals such as deer, wild pigs and water buffalo. Once they sneak close enough, tigers need a successful jump attack to secure their meal.
Luckily, tigers are built for pouncing. The biggest tigers can weigh more than 600 pounds. They use their sheer weight, heavily-muscled front legs and large paws to knock their prey to the ground. Then, 3-inch-long claws and canine teeth help tigers to finish the job with a swipe or bite to the neck or throat. Still, even with all of this power, researchers report that tigers make a catch only once every 10-20 tries.
After dark, pet cats often become extra playful and more willing to jump after that feathered lure we keep dangling in front of them. They might look a bit wild-eyed as they leap around furniture, twisting and tumbling after each other or a crumpled napkin.
Nightfall is tiger time as well. Although the big cats can move around during the day, they do much of their hunting at night when deer, wild boar and other favorite prey animals come out to forage for food.
Like our stealthy house cats, tigers are well-suited for life in the dark. They use 6-inch long whiskers on their muzzles to feel their way around. Tigers also have shorter whiskers above their eyes, on their cheeks, behind their front legs and scattered on other parts of their bodies. Whiskers can sense changes in air pressure, so a tiger can feel when something moves nearby in the darkness.
Little cats and big cats both have specially adapted eyes for seeing well at night. Have you ever seen a house cat’s eyes glow? The cause is a mirror-like part of their eye, called the tapetum lucidum. This “mirror” bounces incoming light back through the eye again to help brighten up what tigers and little cats are seeing. Scientists calculate that cats can see about six times better than humans at night.
AFFECTION OR COMMUNICATION?
Cats do all kinds of things that seem affectionate to us. They rub against our legs and hands, purr, and lick themselves, us and other pets.
Tigers use similar actions as communication. Tigers are loners most of the time, so when they do feel social, such as during courtship or while mom is raising her young, they need to give each other very clear signals to avoid fights.
A friendly signal is when tigers rub their cheeks against each other or objects, especially while chuffing. Chuffing is a welcoming vocalization that sounds like “f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f.”
Tigers and house cats also rub up against things to mark their territory. With scent glands in their cheeks, chins, lips, backsides and between their toes, cats leave smelly trails wherever they walk, rub or spray. This behavior tells other animals that a cat or tiger lives there and claims that area as home territory. Smelly trails can further help young tiger cubs to follow right behind mom.
People have great fun recording their pet cats doing all sorts of comical things. Wildlife biologists do the same thing with tigers, only their recordings have a serious purpose. Tigers are endangered, meaning very few are left in the wild. One big reason is that tigers are losing good habitat to palm oil plantations and farms. So, biologists use video cameras and other technology to learn more about tigers and to help protect them. In wild tiger territory, researchers set up hidden cameras with heat and motion sensors that trigger the cameras to record when tigers walk by. Looking at the pictures and video clips, biologists can figure out how many and which tigers are living in each watched area. That way, they can decide what places are the most urgent to protect.