Tiger stripes – some detailed information

There are three main types of variation in tiger appearance: body size, striping patterns and the coloration of the skin and skull characteristics. This post is about tiger stripes.

Tiger stripes
Tiger stripes. Photos in public domain on Pinterest and montaged by PoC.
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The ground colour of tigers’s skins (pelages) varies from dark red to pale yellow. It reflects their habitat and the humidity of the area where they live. Darker coloured tigers are found in the tropical rainforest of south-east Asia and the Sunda Islands. The Amur tiger (in Siberia, Russia) is often pale especially when in the winter coat. There is, however, variation within populations. In other words, Amur tigers can have a similar darkness of colouration to the darker coloured tigers of Southeast Asia and vice versa.

The coloration of the stripes may vary too. Amur tigers have dark brown stripes. However, tigers in the north where there are longer periods of daylight in the summer months may have lighter stripes because of fading of the pigment (melanin) in the hair strands which create the stripes. Black stripes may fade to brown and the darker ground colours may become paler during the year.

Moulting (shedding fur) Amur tigers in a breeding centre near Harbin, China had black stripes on their new darker summer coat. This contrasted with the brown stripes of their paler winter coat.

Tiger subspecies can be characterised on the basis of their striping patterns. For example, in 1981, a scientist, Mazak, was able to distinguish Sunda Island tigers because of the higher frequency of their stripes which often end in a line of spots. Whereas Sumatran tigers are normally described as having thicker stripes than tigers from Java. Amur tigers are said to have thinner stripes than Bengal tigers. That said, in a study of 1992 by Hepter and Sludskii it was found that Amur and Caspain tigers (now extinct) “displayed a wide variety of striping patterns and ground colour variations”.

In a tiger collection in the Natural History Museum, London and the National Museums of Scotland one scientist placed scores against the coloration and striping patterns of the tiger skins reflecting seven characteristics.

Tiger pelages chart
Tiger pelages chart

Each characteristic was given a score of either one or three as shown in the table above with an intermediate character state of 2 if necessary. A score of three means the skin was light and the stripes thin. Scores of one reflect dark skins with thick abundance stripes. For each skin the character scores were totaled to give a specimen score. You can see from the table that the single Siberian tiger (altaica) has a high score indicating a light coloured skin with thin striping while the Bengal tiger (tigris tigris) has a darker pelage and thick, abundant stripes.

The results indicated a bigger range of tiger stripes and colouring between subspecies that is normally described. Sunda tigers normally have low scores (dark, well-striped skins) while Indian tigers (Bengal tigers) have very variable scores.

The table below shows a number of stripes on the mid-flank of tiger pelages
in the collection of the Natural History Museum, London and from photographs in Mazak (1996).

Number of tiger stripes by species chart
Number of tiger stripes by species chart

The chart shows that the species of tiger with the lowest number of stripes is the Siberian tiger while the tiger with the largest number of stripes is the Javan tiger (sondaica) and the Bali tiger (balica). Both of these species of tiger are extinct. The Siberian Tiger and the Bengal Tiger are both extant (i.e. currently living in the wild albeit in small numbers).



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