We’ve all heard the phrase “a tiger can’t change its stripes,” but what few people realize about these majestic predators is why exactly they have such unique markings in the first place. So, what’s the purpose behind their patterns?
While tigers’ distinctive pattern and generally bright orange and black fur may be highly identifiable to humans, it actually serves a very specific, albeit unexpected purpose in the animal world: camouflage.
In their native environments throughout the Asian continent, tigers’ stripes help them blend in with their surroundings. In spite of their bright coloring, since tigers tend to hunt at night, their stripes help break up the silhouette of their body in the dim light, making it harder for their prey to spot them as they ready themselves to attack. In fact, research by the Linnean Society of London reveals that the spatial frequencies in tiger patterns closely mimic their surroundings—specifically the tall grasses in which they stalk their prey. Fortunately, while the tigers may be well-served by their habitat, pattern, and nighttime feeding schedule, they’re still highly effective at sniffing out a meal, thanks to their sharp vision in dim light—a trait virtually all cats, regardless of size, tend to share.
However, while traditional orange-and-black tigers have an advantage when it comes to disguising themselves, not all big cats are so lucky.
White Bengal tigers, who account for about 1 in 10,000 tiger births in the wild, are not so easily camouflaged due to their unique fur—a feature generally acquired through inbreeding. However, while white tigers are more frequently born in captivity, relatively few survive—the conditions required to breed a white tiger also tend to lead to deformities among tiger cubs, causing a particularly high juvenile mortality rate. And while white-and-black striped tigers are rare as it is, they’re not the most unique big cats out there. That honor goes to the so-called snow white tiger, an anomalous animal of which there are only 200 in the world, the most recent of which was born in Qingdao, China in 2015.
And while a tiger’s fur may be its most distinctive physical attribute, it’s hardly its only noteworthy aesthetic feature. In fact, if you were to take a peek underneath a tiger’s fur, you’d reveal skin with the same pattern on it. That’s right: tigers are striped right down to their skin. And for more amazing information about the animal kingdom, check out these 50 Amazing Animal Facts!
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