Cat species comprise about 16% of the world's carnivores. The taxonomic classification has fluctuated since new morphological and genetic research has been documented.
The Felidae family has 18 genera encompassing about 40 species. There are 13 genera within the Felinae subfamily, 4 genera within the Pantherinae subfamily and 1 within the Acinonychinae subfamily.
There are eight recognized subspecies of tiger, five of which are living (Bengal, Amur, Indo-Chinese, Sumatran and South China tigers). These subspecies are distinguished by their geographic distribution and physical characteristics such as size, hair length and/or thickness and striping.
The Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) has reddish-orange colored fur with dark brown-black vertical stripes. Bengal tigers may weigh up to 220 kg (480 lbs.) and are about 2.9 m (9.5 ft) in length. They inhabit the Indian subcontinent, India, Nepal, Bangledesh and Burma. This is the subspecies found at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.
The Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) is the largest living cat species, weighing up to 300 kg. (660 lbs.) and is about 3.3 m. (10.9 ft) in length. Historically they were called Siberian tigers but have since been renamed because they are currently found near the Amur River region of Russia, China and North Korea, not Siberia. Amur tigers have lighter and fewer stripes than other tiger subspecies. They have long and thick hair to help them stay warm in their cold climate.
The Indo-Chinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti) is one of the smallest tiger subspecies, weighing up to 182 kg (400 lbs.) and is about 2.8 m (9ft) in length. They have a large range encompassing continental southeast Asia region (southern China, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and eastern Burma).
The South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) are native to South Central China. They may weigh up to 150 kg (330 lbs.) and are about 2.5 m (8 ft) in length. South China tigers are the most critically endangered of all tiger subspecies with a population estimate between 30 to 80 individuals.
The Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) is the smallest living tiger subspecies, weighing up to 120 kg (265 lbs.) and is about 2.4 m (8 ft) in length. They are found in Sumatra, part of Indonesia. The Sumatran tiger's fur is darker in coloration than other tiger species with a deep orange to reddish coat and black stripes.
The Javan tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) was exclusively found in Java Indonesia and went extinct in the early 1980's They had thin black stripes that were usually double-looped. The Javan and Bali tigers were very similar in their small size weighing only 90 to 90 kg (200 to 220 lbs.)
The Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) was native from Turkey through central and west Asia and went extinct around the 1950's. They had a distinctive style for hunting in that they stalked migrating prey over long distances rather than holding territories like other tiger subspecies.
The Balinese tiger (Panthera tigris balica) was exclusively found in Bali in Indonesia and went extinct in the early 1930's. The Javan and Bali tigers were very similar in their small size weighing only 90 to 90 kg (200 to 220 lbs.).
The species name tigris is Greek for "arrow". It is thought that its name was derived from the straight (as an arrow) and fast-flowing Tigris river that lies between Kurdistan in east central Turkey and the Persian Gulf.
The genus Panthera includes the following four big cat species, tiger (Panthera tigris), lion (Panthera leo), leopard (Panthera pardus) and jaguar (Panthera onca) that are capable of roaring. These big cats possess thickened vocal folds below their vocal cords and a roar is produced by vibrations of these folds. Historically, snow leopards were classified under the Panthera genus. However, their less-developed vocal folds have led to their reclassification into their own genus Uncia.
Many scientists believe the first mammals emerged about 208 million years ago but the true Age of Mammals did not begin until about 65 million years ago, after dinosaurs became extinct.
The first carnivores emerged from a group of animals known as miacoids about 60 to 80 million years ago. About the size of a domestic cat, 1 to 3 kg (2 to 7 lbs.), miacoids were arboreal (tree-dwelling) and had developed carnassials (sharp cutting teeth) which they used for cutting and crushing. Miacoids are the oldest tiger ancestors recorded to date.
Carnivores divided into two groups called Feliformia and Caniformia about 40 million years ago. The Feliformia group was more cat-like and eventually encompassed animals that include cats, hyenas, civets and mongooses. The Caniformia group was more bear-like and eventually encompassed animals that include bears, raccoons, weasels, dogs, skunks, badgers, sea lions, seals and walruses.
About 37 million years ago civets and mongooses diverged from the Feliformia group into their own respective group or clade. Hyenas diverged from the Feliformia group later, around 35 million years ago, into their respective clade.
Thirty million years ago Proailurus, the oldest cat appeared in the fossil record. Proailurus was native to the area now known as France. It is estimated to have weighed about 25 pounds, had a length of about 75 cm (30 in), arboreal and had eight more teeth than modern day cats.
Twenty million years ago a group of cats called Pseudaelurines appeared in the fossil record and are believed to be the direct ancestors of all modern day cat species (37 species).
About 1.6 million years ago Smilodon appeared in the fossil record and is known as the saber-toothed cat. Smilodon fossils were discovered from the La Brea tar pits, which is Los Angeles today, but their genus was widespread throughout North and South America. The saber-tooth name was derived from their long curved upper canines which resembled sabers. Saber-toothed cats became extinct about 10,000 years ago.
Fossil evidence and genetic information has determined that the lion, leopard and jaguar have more in common with each other than with the tiger. Thus it is estimated that the tiger diverged earlier from the common Panthera ancestor than other members of its genus.
Evolutionary Perspectives of the Tiger
The first people to embrace the tiger as an important symbol in their culture were the Indus Valley civilization of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro (area known today as Pakistan) around 5,000 years ago. Tiger symbols were engraved on seals and worn as amulets as a representation of property ownership.
Over a thousand years ago the Roman Empire was at its peak. Tigers with their great strength were used for entertainment purposes in Colosseum games.