The Tiger Taxonomy Puzzle

The tiger is among the most charismatic megafauna we have on planet Earth, an animal that has shared space with humans in a number of countries and has found a place in folklore, arts, literature and heraldry.

You may think that all tigers are alike, but if you look closely you will see differences. Why? let’s do a bit of time travel to find out.

Most scientific studies have shown that the tiger evolved two million years ago, during the Pleistocene epoch, in northern or southern China. From there, the tiger colonized all of Asia. Its range extended from eastern Anatolia to the Sea of ​​Japan and from the Indian subcontinent to the Sunda Islands.

In 1758, Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, wrote his monumental work natural system in Latin. Here he described an animal known as felis tigerthe Tiger.

In the years that followed, several naturalists and zoologists proposed differences between tigers based on the skins and skulls of dead specimens. In taxonomy, this type of differentiation is known as the “subspecies” concept.

In 1815, Johann Karl Wilhelm Illiger, a German zoologist, proposed a new tiger subspecies. This subspecies is called Persian or Caspian tiger, Felis tigris virgate, because he felt that this tiger was different from the others. Sadly, the Caspian tiger perished due to Russian colonization of Central Asia, with the last sighting dating back to 1958.

In 1844, the Dutchman Coenraad Jacob Temminck proposed the Amur or Siberian tiger based on a tiger skin traded between Japan and Korea. He gave her the name Altaica.

He speculated that this tiger was found in the Altai mountain range in Inner Asia. A 2009 study concluded that the Caspian tiger was most closely related to the Amur tiger.

In 1844, Temminck also proposed the Javan tiger. Found on the island of Java, he gave it the name sondaica, that is to say the tiger of the Sunda island. The Javan tiger became extinct in the 1970s.

In 1905, Max Hilzheimer, a German zoologist, proposed the South China tiger or Amoyensis based on five skulls he had. The skulls came from Hankou, which is now part of the city of Wuhan.

The given name, amoyensis, refers to Amoy Island, now known as Xiamen in Fujian Province. The South China tiger was hunted excessively after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Today it is functionally extinct in the wild.

In 1912, German zoologist Ernst Schwarz proposed the Balinese tiger. It was based on the skin and skull of an adult tigress from the island of Bali. It also disappeared in the 1950s.

In 1929, British zoologist Reginald Innes Pocock took an important step. He placed the tiger in the genus Panther, with lion, leopard and jaguar. Today it also consists of the snow leopard.

He also offered panthera tigris sumatrae based on a skull and a living animal from the island of Sumatra. Two other proposed subspecies were the Indochinese Tiger or panthera tigris corbetti and the Malayan tiger or Panthera tigris jacksoni.

The first was in honor of our own Jim Corbett in 1968 by Czech naturalist Vratislav Mazák. The Malayan tiger was proposed by Chinese scientist Shu-Jin Luo in 2004. So that makes 9.

An essay by Andrew C Kitchener titled Tiger distribution, phenotypic variation and conservation issues argued that tigers across Asia should actually be divided into only two divisions: those on the mainland were panthera tigris tigris and those of the Sunda Islands were Panthera tigris sondaica.

Another study in 2015 supported this hypothesis. In 2017, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Cat Specialist Group revised the taxonomy of the tiger accordingly. However, a genetic study in 2018 reaffirmed traditional divisions of the tiger. The jury is therefore still absent.

Taxonomists around the world will continue to argue about how many types of tigers there are in this world. But for humans, especially Asians, the tiger will always remain an enigma.

Whether it is the Udege of the taiga of the Russian Far East, for whom the tiger is Amba, the Great Sovereign or the people of the Sundarbans of the subcontinent, for whom the tiger is Dakhin Rai, that only Bon Bibi can win. For billions of Asians, the majesty and grandeur of the tiger is beyond doubt!

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