Wildlife & Biodiversity

Panthera Tigris: The puzzle that is tiger taxonomy

The jury is still out on how many types of tiger are found across Asia

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Wednesday 06 April 2022

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

You may think that all tigers look the same, but if you look closer, you will see differences. Why? let us 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 either northern or southern China. From there, the tiger colonised the whole of Asia. Its range stretched 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 Systema Naturae in Latin. Here, he described an animal known as Felis tigris, the tiger.

In the years after that, several naturalists and zoologists proposed differences in tigers based on the skins and skulls of dead specimens. In taxonomy, this type of differentiation is known as the concept of ‘subspecies’.

In 1815, Johann Karl Wilhelm Illiger, a German zoologist, proposed a new subspecies of tiger. This subspecies is called Persian or Caspian Sea tiger, Felis tigris virgata, as he felt this tiger was different from others. Sadly, the Caspian tiger perished due to the Russian colonisation of Central Asia, with the last sighting being in 1958.

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

He assumed that this tiger was found in the Altai mountain range in Inner Asia. A study in 2009 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, meaning the Sunda island tiger. 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 that he had. The skulls came from Hankou, now a part of Wuhan city.

The name given, amoyensis, alluded to the island of Amoy, 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. This was on the basis of the skin and skull of an adult tigress from the island of Bali. It too became extinct in the 1950s.

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

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

The former was in honour of our very 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 it 9.

An essay by Andrew C Kitchener titled Tiger distribution, phenotypic variation and conservation issues argued that tigers across Asia should in fact be divided into just two divisions: Those on the mainland were Panthera tigris tigris and those in the Sunda islands were Panthera tigris sondaica.

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

The taxonomists of the world will keep arguing about how many types of tigers there are in this world. But for humans, especially Asians, the tiger will always be an enigma.

Whether they be the Udege of the Russian Far East’s taiga, for whom the tiger is Amba, the Great Sovereign or the people of the Sundarbans in the subcontinent, for whom the tiger is Dakhin Rai, whom only Bon Bibi can vanquish. For Asia’s billions, the tiger’s majesty and grandeur is not at all in doubt!

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