11 Fierce Facts About Tigers

LukeWaitPhotography/iStock via Getty Images
LukeWaitPhotography/iStock via Getty Images

In honor of International Tiger Day (which is celebrated on July 29th), here are a few things you might not know about the exotic—and endangered—animal.

1. No tiger stripe is the same.

The big cats use their coats as camouflage. Every tiger has a unique set of stripes that can be used to identify it, similar to human fingerprints. Some tigers have orange fur with black stripes; others are black with tan stripes, white with tan stripes, or all white (albino).

2. Tigers are an endangered species.

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Humans have long hunted tigers for their fur and and other parts (more on that below). They are also rapidly losing their habitats, since people have co-opted most of their land for farming and logging. (The island of Sumatra, home of the Sumatran tiger, for example, has lost 50 percent of its forest cover.) In just over a century, 97 percent of the tiger population has perished, three subspecies have gone extinct, and the whole species is expected to be extinct in just a decade.

3. There are more tigers in captivity than in the wild.

There are thought to be 3000 tigers in the wild and between 5000 and 10,000 tigers in U.S. cages. An estimated 90 percent of them are kept in roadside zoos, backyard breeder facilities, circus wagons, and as pets in homes.

4. Tigers are the largest members of the cat family ...

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... Followed by the lion in second place, and the jaguar in third. The Siberian tiger, the largest subspecies, can weigh up to 675 pounds and is capable of killing animals twice its size.

5. Tigers are territorial.

Tigers live alone and scent-mark their territories—which can be up to 10,000 square kilometers in size. A male tiger guards his territory from other males, but must offer access to females for potential mating. A male's territory will always be larger than a female's, and may overlap with the territories of one to seven females.

6. There were once nine sub-species of tigers.

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At one time, these subspecies included the Bengal, the Siberian, the Indochinese, the South Chinese, the Sumatran, the Malayan, the Caspian, the Javan, and the Bali. Of these, the Caspian, the Javan, and the Bali are extinct, the South Chinese is extinct in the wild, and the rest are endangered.

7. A tiger’s lifespan is usually 10 to 15 years.

Tigers are typically nocturnal and solitary animals. At the beginning of their lives, they spend two and a half years with their mothers before venturing out to live the rest of their days alone.

8. Many cultures consider the tiger to be a symbol of strength and courage.

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However, that comes with drawbacks, as hunting them is also considered a sign of bravery. In Asia, tigers are one of the top five animals that people pay huge amounts of money for the "privilege" of hunting. In addition, it is believed that at least 60 percent of China’s billion-plus inhabitants use medicines with tiger-derived ingredients. The booming economies (and related personal incomes) in Southeast Asia have caused demand and prices for tiger-related products to soar; in general, the international trade in wildlife products is an estimated $6 billion-a-year business.

9. All tigers are carnivores, but carnivores with manners.

Male tigers usually hunt and feast alone. However, if they have a family, they will let the female tigress and her cubs eat first. Their typical diet consists mainly of pigs, deer, rhinos, and elephant calves, and they are capable of eating up to 21 kilograms of meat per day.

10. Tigers can have as many as seven cubs.

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Adult females generally produce a litter every two years. However, only about half of the litter survives, because the mother cannot abandon the group long enough to kill the prey necessary to sustain them all. The cubs only join their mother for the hunt after eight to 10 months of careful instruction from mom.

11. Tigers rely heavily on their teeth for survival.

Tigers' jaws are made for "snapping necks, crunching through bone and sinew, and grinding meat into mouthfuls soft enough to swallow." Their canine teeth are especially sharp, and are packed full of nerve endings that allow for hunting and attacking with precision. If a tiger were to lose its canines, it would no longer be able to kill and would likely starve to death.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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12 Fascinating Facts About Elephants

Photo by David Heiling on Unsplash

Known for their strong family bonds and intelligence, elephants have fascinated humans across time and cultures. As the largest living land mammal, a male African bush elephant typically stands more than 10 feet tall and weighs an incredible 6.6 tons. Although poachers still kill approximately 100 African elephants every day, conservation groups are working to save elephant populations from extinction. Read on for a dozen things you might not know about elephants, from their long history as a political symbol to their legit firefighting skills.

1. Contrary to popular belief, elephants are not exactly scared of mice.

Baby elephant looks startled.
iStock.com/szaphotography

Cartoonists have long depicted the funny juxtaposition of a giant elephant terrified of a tiny mouse. Zoologists and elephant trainers have conducted experiments to test whether elephants are truly afraid of rodents, and it seems to be a myth. Mice themselves don't frighten elephants, but the pachyderms have poor vision and can get extremely startled when anything suddenly scurries by. Elephants are probably more afraid of a mouse's sudden movement than the mouse itself.

2. Wild elephants could have populated the U.S., but abraham Lincoln nixed the idea.

A mother and baby elephant taking a walk.
iStock.com/saha_avijan

In 1861, President Lincoln received gifts, including elephant tusks and a handmade sword, from Siam's King Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut. The king of present-day Thailand also made an interesting offer: Mongkut proposed that Siam would send pairs of male and female elephants to the U.S. to breed in the forests. Americans could then tame the wild elephants and put them to work for the economic benefit of the country. William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state, replied to Mongkut in 1862, graciously declining his offer. He told the king that since the U.S. already used steam power to efficiently transport goods within the country, elephants simply wouldn't be practical.

3. Trunk-sucking is the elephant equivalent of thumb-sucking.

Baby elephant sucking its trunk.
iStock.com/bucky_za

When baby elephants want to comfort themselves, they instinctively start sucking their trunks. Trunk-sucking is also a way that a baby elephant can learn how to use her trunk (which contains between 40,000 and 50,000 muscles). Although most elephants, like human babies, grow out of sucking behavior, some adult elephants also suck their trunks when they feel anxious.

4. Elephants have been the symbol of the Republican Party since 1874.

Elephant symbol for the Republican party.
iStock.com/Niyazz

Although elephants had been occasionally used as a symbol for Republicans during the Civil War, cartoonist Thomas Nast, who drew an elephant in an 1874 issue of Harper's Weekly, gets the credit for linking the animal with the political party. In later cartoons, Nast continued to draw an elephant to portray the Republican Party, and other cartoonists adopted it, establishing the animal as the GOP symbol.

5. Barnum & Bailey once trained elephants to play baseball.

U.S. stamp with a circus elephant on it.
iStock.com/Valerie Loiseleux

Baseball is America's pastime, so why not teach elephants how to play the game? In 1912, thanks to the work of Barnum & Bailey's elephant trainer, Harry L. Mooney, the intelligent animals played their first ballgame. Although playing baseball was just one of many tricks that circus elephants learned, Barnum & Bailey capitalized on the concept of elephant baseball by using the image on posters to sell tickets for shows.

6. Some elephants have been convicted of murder.

Elephant foot in chains.
iStock.com/Pentium2

Although elephants are typically viewed as gentle giants, they are capable of attacking and killing humans. Male elephants undergo musth, a hormonal change that makes them temporarily produce tons of testosterone, resulting in aggression. But even female elephants can kill. In 1916, a town in Tennessee charged an elephant named Big Mary with first-degree murder for killing her handler. Big Mary, who worked for the Sparks Circus, attacked her handler, possibly after he struck her with a bullhook as she was trying to eat a watermelon rind. Big Mary was convicted and sentenced to execution. Some 2500 residents of the town gathered to watch Big Mary's dramatic hanging, which featured a 100-ton crane and a chain that broke under her weight.

7. Elephants grieve death.

Elephants mourning the death of a baby elephant.
iStock.com/brittak

Although we can't know exactly what elephants feel and how they process death, they seem to show signs that they experience grief when a member of their family (or another elephant) dies. When they see a dead elephant, they may vocalize, use their trunks to "hug" the dead animal, or stay with the carcass for hours. Some elephants have also tried to bury the dead body by covering it in leaves and soil.

8. Trained elephants fight fires in Indonesia.

Elephant with water spewing out of its trunk.
Ishara S.KODIKARA, AFP/GettyImages

You probably won't see an elephant riding on a fire truck anytime soon, but elephants in Indonesia are a vital part of fighting fires. In 2015, East Sumatra was plagued with multiple fires over a period of several months, so 23 trained elephants from a conservation center went to work. Carrying water pumps and hoses, the elephants helped patrol the land and made sure that new fires weren't ignited.

9. If you're in Zambia, you might see some elephants strolling through your hotel lobby.

An elephant walks into the lobby of the Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia.
An elephant walks into the lobby of the Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia.
Lars Plougmann, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Some guests at Mfuwe Lodge in the African country of Zambia get an unusual animal sighting before they even leave the lobby. Each year between October and December, families of elephants walk through the lodge's reception area to eat wild mango from a tree in the courtyard. The elephants' giant size and seeming indifference to their hotel lobby surroundings make for quite a striking sight.

10. In 2015, scientists recorded elephants yawning for the first time.

An elephant's open mouth.
iStock.com/filrom

Although scientists speculated that elephants probably yawn, scientists from the University of California, Davis captured the first video of an elephant yawning. If you enjoy watching sleepy animals stretching and yawning, this is for you. Warning: extreme cuteness ahead.

11. Elephants starred in YouTube's first-ever video.

Man taking a photo of an elephant on his phone.
iStock.com/iudmylaSupynska

On April 23, 2005, Jawed Karim made internet history when he uploaded the first video to a certain nascent video-sharing website. Karim, one of YouTube's founders, posted an 18-second scene of himself standing in front of elephants at a zoo. In the video, he speaks about how cool the elephants' long trunks are. As of August 2019, the video has more than 74 million views.

12. Elephants love to snack on old Christmas trees.

Two elephants snacking on pine trees.
VADIM KRAMER, AFP/Getty Images

Zookeepers at Tierpark Berlin, a zoo in Germany, feed unsold Christmas trees to their elephants in early January. The trees are certified pesticide-free, and the elephants seem to enjoy their special snack. Berlin isn't the only place where elephants eat Christmas trees, though. Zoos in Prague also treat their elephants to the tasty conifers.