Are tigons fertile?

A tigon is a hybrid between a male tiger and a female lion. Are they fertile? I feel the need to quote Sarah Hartwell verbatim on this one from her website messybeast.com as she’s the expert. She writes, “Ligers and tigons are closely enough related that the offspring are partially fertile i.e. the female is often fertile but the male is rarely fertile.”

This information clashes with the Smithsonian Magazine which states that although many hybrid animals are infertile ligers and tigons are not. They say that they are perfectly capable of breeding and producing even more exotic second generation hybrid offspring named: Li-Tigons and Ti-Ligers.

Tigon
Tigon drawings. Photo: from Sarah’s messybeast website and published here under the belief that the image is now in the public domain.
Until September 7th I will give 10 cents to an animal charity for every comment. It is a way to help animal welfare without much effort at no cost. Comments help this website too, which is about animal welfare.

So who’s right? Sarah Hartwell of course! It was thought that both ligers and tigons were sterile but successful matings indicated that they aren’t. In India, in 1971 a tigoness, Rudhrani, was mated to a male Asiatic lion named Debabrata. She gave birth to second-generation hybrids which they called litigons. In all she gave birth to 7 litigons in her lifetime. They appear to have benefited from what is called hybrid vigour in that some reached impressive sizes. For example, one named Cubanacan weighed 800 pounds (363 kg). The cat was 11 feet (3.5 m) in total length and was 4.3 feet (1.32 m) at the shoulder.

The litigon Cubanacan
The litigon Cubanacan, published in The Statesman, Calcutta (now Kolkata) on 12 March 1980. Image believed to be in the public domain in 2020.

There is an interesting article about hybrid lions and tigers on a page about evolution (on the pbs.org website). It’s an old page written about twenty years ago. The author says that, “tigons and ligers generally are sterile and short-lived — an evolutionary dead end.”

The article discusses the concept of a species of animal. Species have developed through evolution to become specialised and successful at what they do and therefore successful at surviving. This is the whole purpose of evolution and is the basis of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. If you hybridize species the resultant animal is less successful in their niche and they are often sterile. The reason is that you dilute the specialist genes and so “reduce the success of the adaptation”.

Tigers and lions do not mate naturally in the wild. They are an artificial product of human cat breeders in captive settings such as private zoos. They are unnatural creatures, in my view, for human voyeurism. And so nature wouldn’t have allowed it, I would argue, but the reason why they don’t mate in the wild is not because nature doesn’t allow it but because they do not occupy the same places. They are not sympatric to use a technical term.

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