Awely des tigres et des hommes Tigers and People

What do we know about the origins of the tiger?

6 November 2015

The tiger (Panthera tigris) is classified in the genus Panthera alongside the lion, leopard, jaguar and snow leopard, still living in the wild today.

Contrary to what was once believed, sabre-toothed tigers – whose canines were tens of centimetres long – weren’t direct ancestors of the modern-day big cats. Some of them were their distant cousins, and others were very remote relations. Therefore, strictly speaking, they weren’t tigers, and there is no proof of them having striped markings on their coats.

Uncertainty still surrounds the ancestors of the Panthera genus. It is now understood that the first representatives of this genus lived 10.7 million years ago in central Asia, not – as thought in the past – in Africa 3.8 million years ago.  It is understood that the first tigers separated from the ancestors of the snow leopard and of the Panthera blytheae (a species that is now extinct) 8.8 million years ago and became a distinct group.

The areas inhabited by the first tigers would have been the historic range of the Bengal tiger: it extended to the Caspian Sea to the west and as far as south west Asia and Indochina to the south, reaching the north of China and into Siberia and even into modern-day Alaska and North America. Climatic variations linked to quaternary glaciations and interglacial periods played a role in encouraging many species to migrate to warmer, more hospitable regions.

This is how many different populations of tiger found themselves isolated from each other and differentiated genetically, until being considered today as distinct sub-species. A minority of tigers stayed in the north and adapted to the cold; they became known as Siberian tigers. The others moved further south and west, with some even crossing the Bering Strait to the east when this was possible.

Although the tiger has been able to adapt to survive profound changes in its environment, it is now on the brink of extinction due to human practices. Today, it’s certain that the high birth rate amongst tigers will not save the last remaining sub-species of this big cat, unless humans change their relationship with nature and do what is necessary to save them.

There are only 4000 tigers left in the wild and every one of us has a role to play in their protection. This is what we are doing in Nepal, in India, in Bangladesh and in Nepal. Now, it is time for you to act.

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