Male and female tigers communicate through a combination of visual signals, vocalisations and scent marks. It is believed that scent marks are perhaps their most important method of communication. Tigers deposit a musky liquid which is strong smelling and which is referred to as “marking fluid”. Apparently cubs do not produce this fluid. It is often mixed with urine and sprayed backward onto upright objects from a standing position. This creates an enhanced “odour field”.
The anal glands may also deposit scent onto faeces. The secretions from anal glands are similar to those of marking fluid. Tigers also rub against objects with their head and cheeks upon which they have sprayed urine. It is believed that this enhances their own “odour field”.
The signals, it is believed, leave a calling card representing the individual tiger’s identity, sex, reproductive condition and the time the mark was made. Tigers encountering a scent mark can tell when it was made; either the previous day or week ago for instance. They can tell whether the mark was made by a male or female and the status of the sprayer including the likelihood of an encounter.
Scent marking is carried out along a network of often used trails and tracks which indicates to others that the area is occupied and being used. Transient tigers pick up the scent and leave the area. Subadult tigers rarely scent-mark. In general, carnivore species infrequently or don’t scent-mark when they do not hold a territory that they can call their own.
The most intensive marking occurs on the boundaries of territories and these markings take place more frequently than in the interior of these areas. The most intensive scent markings occur along major trails where they intersect or along a mutual boundary (a boundary between two ranges).
When tigers are establishing a territory they scent-mark intensively. In one instance, a tigress in India, visited a 500 metre stretch of boundary eight times per month over a four-month period. Over this time she sprayed an average of 49 trees per month.
Scent marking also brings tigers together for mating. In captivity, studies have found that tigresses scent mark more frequently just before they are ready to mate. This ensures that the male is in attendance at the correct time because females appear to be receptive to a male’s advances for only two or three days of each oestrous cycle.
In the wild, a tigress’s rate of scent-marking increases and peaks just prior to oestrous. It then declines during and after oestrous. In one instance a tigress scent marked at twice the normal rate until a male tiger appeared whereupon she did not scent mark.
On another occasion a tigress had lost her cubs whereupon she started scent marking 17 trees and one bush over a 3 kilometre track. This was much more frequently than usual. Two weeks later a male tiger arrived and the couple spent two days together mating.
Scent marks must be placed in conspicuous places. They should also be accessible and kept up-to-date. Urine is normally sprayed onto elevated objects creating a larger odour field compared to spraying urine on the ground.
Typically urine is directed at tree trunks, bushes and rocks which are within about 3 feet of trails. They are both visible and accessible. The undersides of leaning trees and overhanging rocks are favourites.
As mentioned, the marks need to be regularly renewed because the scent fades. Studies reveal that tigers renew their scent marks about every three weeks. On one occasion, because a female had died and had not scent marked her area another female entered into the vacant area about a month later.
In another incident, a male tiger revisited all part of his extended range every two weeks and marked or re-marked the area in order to reinforce his ownership and to check upon the reproductive condition of females occupying his territory.
Scent marking relays a lot of information to other tigers. Scent marking is very important to tigers and their lives are often governed and regulated by them together with visual signals. As you can see, scent marking is dictated by a range of circumstances and under a variety of social and spatial contexts.
I’m very grateful to the wonderful book, Wild Cats of the World by mail Sunquist and Fiona Sunquist, the source of this material.