A liger is the offspring of a lion and a tigress. It is bigger than either parent, 10 - 12 ft in length - making it the biggest hybrid cat and, for many people, the most fascinating. L Reisinger(1929) reported a male liger as weighing as much as both parents together.
Ligers vary in appearance depending on how the genes interact and on which subspecies of lion and tiger are bred together. According to AP Gray in Mammalian Hybrids, the basic colour of lion/tiger hybrids is pale ochre to rust yellow-brown, more intensive than in the lion, but paler than in the tiger and with tiger striping. The mane of the males develops late and is shorter than that of a lion. In general, males grow sparse leonine manes and the facial ruff of a tiger. Males and females have spotted bellies and a striped back. They roar like lions and "chuff" like tigers. The females exhibit conflicting needs for lioness-like sisterhood and tigress-like solitude. Ligers have no scientific name, but Panthera leo X tigris has been posited.
In "The Variation Of Animals And Plants Under Domestication" Charles Darwin wrote: "Many species of Felidae have bred in various menageries, although imported from diverse climates and closely confined. Mr. Bartlett, the present superintendent of the Zoological Gardens (18/17. On the Breeding of the Larger Felidae 'Proc. Zoolog. Soc.' 1861 page 140.) remarks that the lion appears to breed more frequently and to bring forth more young at a birth than any other species of the family. He adds that the tiger has rarely bred; "but there are several well-authenticated instances of the female tiger breeding with the lion." Strange as the fact may appear, many animals under confinement unite with distinct species and produce hybrids quite as freely as, or even more freely than, with their own species." The voluntary hybridisation of some zoo animals is also referred to as hypersexuality.
In Nicholas Courtney's (editor) book "The Tiger, Symbol Of Freedom", it stated "Rare reports have been made of tigresses mating with lions in the wild." A.A. Milne writing in chapter 3 "Tiggers Can't Climb Trees" says that "Under exceptional circumstances it has been known for a tiger to be forced into ranges inhabited by the Asian lion, Panthera leo persica, which is the same genus as the tiger. Rare reports have been made of tigresses mating with lions in the wild and producing offspring known as ligers. When a tiger and a lioness mate the cub is called a tigron." Milne may be referring to the Gir Forest where both species are currently found or to the Persian (Asiatic) lion's historic range which was much larger than it is today and extended into North Africa. Milne also wrote that lions and tigers have cross bred in captivity for centuries (correct), and that the offspring are always sterile (correct with regard to male offspring only). Large brown cats (larger than lions or tigers) were reported anecdotally from Singapore and it has been theorised that they might have been wild-born ligers.
Cuvier reported a litter of three lion-tiger "mules" born in October 1824 in England to an African lion and an Asiatic tigress owned by Mr Atkins, an itinerant exhibitor and animal dealer. They shared a den and were observed to mate frequently during the previous July. The cubs were born at Windsor and were shown to his Majesty. They were taken from the tigress shortly after birth and fostered onto bitches and a goat. Cuvier presented an engraving of 2 of the 3 the cubs at 3 months old and observed that they would probably reach maturity. He described them as being dirty-yellow or "blanket-colour" (i.e. camel colour) with darker tiger-like stripes on the body and spots on the head and on parts of the body. They had lion-like heads. These appear to be the first recorded ligers.
Elsewhere, it was reported that H Smith bred ligers from a Persian (i.e. Asiatic/Indian) lion and a "king tiger" (Royal Bengal tiger), which were born at Windsor on 17 October, 1824 though these could be the same hybrids that Cuvier reported. In 1888, Fitzinger recorded H Smith's hybrid of tiger and Persian lion at Windsor in 1824. He also described 4 sets of hybrids between a Barbary Lion and Indian tiger in the years 1827, 1829, 1833 and 1838.
A definitive account of the Atikins hybrids, with dates of litters, comes from "Lloyd’s Natural History", edited by R Bowdler Sharpe LLD, FLS &c. A Hand-Book to the Carnivora. Part I. Cats, Civets and Mongooses by Richard Lydekker, BA, FRS, Vice-President of the Geological Society etc, etc, etc. (Published 1896) . Page 45: Lion-Tiger Hybrids:
Although there is no record that such cross-breeding occurs in a state of nature; Lions and Tigers will occasionally breed together in captivity; but it is remarkable that the only recorded instances of such interbreeding took place between a single Lion and a Tigress. Attempts have, indeed, recently been made in the Zoological Gardens at Dublin, where, as mentioned above, Lion breeding is carried out with remarkable success, but hitherto without any successful result.
The history of these hybrids has been very carefully worked out by Professor Valentine Bail, Director of the Science and Art Museum, Dublin, from whose papers the following account is taken. The parents of these hybrids were in a travelling menagerie owned at first by Mr. Thomas Atkins, and subsequently by his son Mr. John Atkins; and a total of six litters of hybrids were produced between the years 1824 and 1833. The parent Lion was bred in the menagerie from a Barbary Lion and a Senegal Lioness; while the Tigress was born in the collection of the Marquis of Hastings at Calcutta, and was purchased when about eighteen months old from a ship’s captain, to whom she had been given by her original owner. Being of the same age as the Lion, she was placed with him in the same cage ; and in the course of two years proved to be in cub. The following is a record of the six litters produced by the union of this pair.
First Litter. Born October the 24th, 1824, at Windsor, and comprising two males and a female. They were nourished by a female terrier, but all perished within a year of their birth. These cubs were exhibited to King George the Fourth, at the Royal Cottage, Windsor, on the final of November, by whom they were christened Lion-Tigers.
Second Litter. Born April 22nd, 1825, at Clapham Common; there were three cubs, sexes not recorded. Reared by the mother, as also were all the subsequent litters. They only lived a short time.
Third Litter. Born December 31st, 1826 or 1827, at Edinburgh; one male and two females . Mr. Ball states that the year is given as 1827 in the handbill of the menagerie from which he quotes, and the other references seem to support that date; but Mr. John Atkins says it is given as 1826 in a printed catalogue in his possession. These only lived a few months. The skin of one of them, forming the subject of Plate III,, is preserved in the Science and Art Museum at Edinburgh, and a second is in the British Museum. Sir William Jardine remarks that “the colour was brighter than that of the Lion, and the bands were better marked than they generally are in the young of tire true breed.” Indeed, from his figure, the animal has more the appearance of a Tiger than of a Lion. Writing of the cubs of the first litter in the “Library of Entertaining Knowledge,” where one of them was figured, Griffith observes that "our mules, in common with ordinary Lions, were born without any traces of a mane, or of a tuft at the end of the tail. Their fur in general was rather woolly; the external ear was pendant towards the extremity; the nails were constantly out, and not cased in the sheath, and in these particulars they agreed with the common cubs of Lions. Their colour was dirty yellow or blanket-colour; but from the nose over the head, along the back and upper side of the tail, the colour was much darker, and on these parts the transverse stripes were stronger, and the forehead was covered with obscure spots, slighter indications of which also appeared on other parts of the body. The shape of the head, as appears by the figures, is assimilated to that of the father (the Lion) ; the superficies of the body on the other hand is like that of the Tigress.”
Fourth Litter: Born October 2nd, 1828, at Windsor; one male and two females.
Fifth Litter: Born May, 1831, at Kensington, three cubs, sexes not recorded. They were shown to the Queen, then Princess Victoria, and to the Duchess of Kent. The whole group performed in a specially constructed cage at Astley’s Amphitheatre, and in 1832 were taken by Mr. Atkins for a tour in Ireland
Sixth Litter. Born July 19th, 1833, at the Zoological Gardens, Liverpool; one male and two females. One, the male, lived for ten years in the Gardens. The young male Lion-Tigers when about three years old had a short mane, something like that of an Asiatic Lion; and the stripes became very indistinct at that age.
Mr. J. Atkins informed Professor Ball that there was a badly stuffed specimen of one cub which was about a year old in the Museum at Salisbury ; and there is another in the Cambridge Museum. From an account quoted by Mr. Harmer it would seem improbable that that that particular specimen, had it survived, could have bred. As a matter of fact, it appears, indeed, that none of the cubs ever did breed, though there is no known reason why most of them should not have done so. Mr. Atkins thinks that the cubs of the earlier litters died from overfeeding, as when he adopted a different treatment he had no difficulty in rearing them.
Two liger cubs were born in 1837. These were exhibited to His Majesty William IV and to his successor Queen Victoria. On 14th December 1900, Carl Hagenbeck wrote to zoologist James Cossar Ewart with details and photographs of his cross breeding experiments using a lion and a tiger born at the Hagenpark in Hamburg in 1897. He wrote that he was also attempting to cross a female leopard with a Bengal tiger. On 31st May 1901, Hagenbeck wrote again to James Cossar Ewart sending him photographs of the results of his male lion and tigress hybridisation experiments.
In his “Illustrated Natural History” (1853, 1874) the Rev JG Wood wrote: Dissimilar as are the lion and Tiger, there has been an example of a mixed offspring of these animals, the lion being the father and the Tigress the mother. The lion had been born and bred in captivity, and the Tigress bad been captured at a very early age, so that the natural wildness of their character had been effaced by their captive life, in which they felt no need to roam after. living prey, as their daily sustenance was always forthcoming. It has already been mentioned, that the young of the lion are marked with faint stripes of’ the tigrine character. Similar streaks were observed on the fur of the Lion-Tiger cubs, but they were darker than those of the lion cub, and were permanent instead of vanishing as the creature increased in years. The shape of the head was like that of the lion, while the contour of the body resembled that of the Tiger. These curious little creatures were too valuable to be entrusted to the care of the mother, and therefore were removed immediately after birth, and placed under the fostering care of a goat and several dogs. Under this treatment they throve well, but did not reach maturity. This is not the only instance of a hybrid breed between the lion and Tiger.
In "Animal Life and the World of Nature" (1902-1903), A H Bryden wrote about Hagenbeck's "lion-tiger" hybrids: " It has remained for one of the most enterprising collectors and naturalists of our time, Mr Carl Hagenbeck, not only to breed, but to bring successfully to a healthy maturity, specimens of this rare alliance between those two great and formidable felidae, the lion and tiger. The illustrations will indicate sufficiently how fortunate Mr Hagenbeck has been in his efforts to produce these hybrids. The oldest and biggest of the animals shown is a hybrid born on the 11th May, 1897. This fine beast, now more than five years old, equals and even excels in his proportions a well-grown lion, measuring as he does from nose tip to tail 10 ft 2 inches in length, and standing only three inches less than 4 ft at the shoulder. A good big lion will weigh about 400 lbs [...] the hybrid in question, weighing as it does no less than 467 lbs, is certainly the superior of most well-grown lions, whether wild-bred or born in a menagerie. This animal shows faint striping and mottling, and, in its characteristics, exhibits strong traces of both its parents. It has a somewhat lion-like head, and the tail is more like that of a lion than of a tiger. On the other hand, it has little or no trace of mane. It is a huge and very powerful beast."
Nineteenth Century naïve painting of an animal trainer with lion, tigress and three hybrid offspring. The offspring (enlargement below) have lion-like colouration, a dorsal stripe and tiger-like ruffs.
A colour plate of the offspring of lion and tiger by Geoffrey St Hilaire (1772 - 1844)
Engraving of liger cubs born 1824 by G B Whittaker (engraving dated 1825)
Engraving of "lion-tiger" in Lloyd's Natural History, facing page 44 (1896)
In 1935, four ligers from two litters, were reared in the Zoological Gardens of Bloemfontein, South Africa. Three of them, a male and two females, were still living in 1953. The male weighed 750 lbs. and stood a foot and a half taller than a full grown male lion at the shoulder.
Proving that hybrids need not be unhealthy or short-lived, Shasta the ligress, who lived at the Hogle zoo in Salt Lake City, set a longevity record. She was born at the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City on May 14th, 1948 and died in 1972 at age 24 (and an Indian tigon reached 25 years old). The 1973 Guinness world records reported the 18 year old, 750 lbs male liger living at Bloemfontein zoological gardens, South Africa in 1953.
1904 photo of circus lion tamer with 2 lions and a liger (probably Hagenbeck's show)
1904 photo of circus tigress, lion and hybrid offspring.
1904 photo of Hagenbeck's ligers
Ligers are the largest big cat, tending towards gigantism, especially in the males which can be the size of a pony and weigh over half a tonne. Some researchers suggest this is a throwback effect to the huge size of the related extinct "cave lion" though the effect is actually due to "growth dysplasia" (see below). The male liger reportedly has a gentle disposition which may be due to lack of testosterone (male hybrids are usually infertile). Some male ligers have more mane development than others and some are almost mane-less; this is comparable to variable mane sizes in wild lions. Because of public fascination with giant cats, the liger is now more common than the tigon. Although ligers are claimed to be relatively docile, their size and strength still makes them very dangerous when excited or defensive. In october 2008, a handler at an animal sanctuary near Tulsa was fatally mauled by a 1000 lb liger called Rocky when he entered its enclosure while it was feeding (a violation of the zoo's rules). The handler was bitten on the neck and back and died in hospital the following day. When Rocky was younger, it was possible to ride him like a horse. Although the handler was at fault, the liger may be destroyed.
In "At Home In The Zoo" (1961), Gerald Iles wrote "For the record I must say that I have never seen a liger, a hybrid obtained by crossing a lion with a tigress. They seem to be even rarer than tigons." In contrast, Iles was more easily able to acquire tigons for Belle Vue Zoo, Manchester.
Ligers, showing the variable appearance due to different gene interactions.
Baron Julius Von Uhl (Shrine Circus) bred a male liger named "Ligy", who lived to be 27 and weighed 800 lbs. Von Uhl is better known for his tigers, including white tigers.
Not all liger births are planned - in September 1975, a tigress sharing a cage with a lion at a zoo in Osaka, Japan, gave birth to 3 cubs described as having tiger's heads and lion's bodies. Two died soon after birth and the third was reported as "very poorly", presumably dying soon after the news report. In the 1980s, ligers were bred at the tiger park in Thoiry near Paris owned by Vicomte Paul de la Panouse who allowed lions and tigers to roam freely together; so freely they interbred. One of the ligers, Julie, produced a cub, though its paternity wasn't known. It was reported that in 1984 2 "ligrons" (ligers) mated and produced offspring, thus disproving that hybrids were sterile (The Gazette, Montreal, Quebec, May 14, 1988. p I3 ); but the sire of the 2nd generation was probably Julie's own sire, a lion.
In Amman Zoo, Jordan, Jassass, a 250 kilogram seven-year-old lion, and Warda, a 120 kg six year old tigress were introduced to each other on August 30, 2001. On this occasion, the tigress rebuffed the lion's overtures, but zoo keepers remained hopeful that the pair would eventually mate (to date there has been no success).
A liger born in 2002 at Fuzhou, Fujian Province, lived for more than 100 days. In July 2004, a liger cub born in a wildlife park in Hainan, China died of respiratory failure 72 hours after birth. It had been born to the tigress Huan Huan and a lion called Xiao Erhei. It was born underweight and its death was attributed to congenital respiratory failure. According to Hainan biologist Dr.Li Yuchun, only one out of 500,000 lion-tiger or tiger-lion cubs survive, due to differences in their chromosomes. Huanhuan had rejected the cub and it had been suckled by a domestic dog that had just whelped in the hope of getting colostrum. The zoo planned to breed further ligers and later produced Ping Ping, Ann and Dai Wei. In July 2006, they produced 4 more liger cubs. The parents and their 7 cubs lived together in a single enclosure.
On 6th December 2004, a Bengal tigress produced healthy liger cubs sired by an African lion. The Russian Information Agency Novosti claimed it to be the first ever liger produced from this combination (possibly the first in Russia). The parents lived in neighbouring caves in the Novosibirsk zoo and got used to each other. The female liger cub was named Zita and resembles her tigress mother with clear tiger stripes, but has a lion's background colour and many leonine features. Her brother remains with his parents in another Siberian zoo. In November 2005, three liger cubs were born in the Novosibirsk Zoo to an African lion and a Bengalese tigress. This second litter from the same pair is the result of a genuine attachment between the two big cats which have been housed in neighbouring cages since childhood. Staff at Novosibirsk Zoo are considering the possibility of scientific research into liger fertility. During 2005, two tigons and three ligers were bred at the Shenzhen safari park, in southern China (near Hong Kong).
The Valley Of The Kings sanctuary in Wisconsin has a liger named Nook. Liger cubs were born at the Ark zoo in Germany. A pair of ligers in Peking zoo, bred from an African lion and an Ussuri tigress. In April 2005, a liger (erroneously called a tigron) called Samil was born at the Italian Circus in Vigo, northwestern Spain. Samil is a cross between a female tiger and a lion and therefore is a liger.
In October 2008, three liger cubs were born at the winter zoo of circus Embell-Riva (Bellucci family) in Italy.
On 15th August 2010, Taiwan's first liger cubs were born in the private "World Snake King Education Farm" in Kuijen, Tainan county. The parents were a Bengal tigress called Beauty and an African lion called Simba. One of the 3 cubs died at birth and the remaining two were being hand-reared because the tigress made no attempt to nurse them. Zoo keeper Huang Kuo-nan said Simba and Beauty have shared the same cage since they were both small and they started mating three years ago, but Beauty had not previously conceived. Housing big cats together from young is not uncommon in private zoos. Breeding and crossing of rare protected animals is illegal in Taiwan so Huang is under investigation for breaking the law even though he claims he didn't mate the pair intentionally. However, earlier in 2010 Huang was accused of illegally trading tigers. He says that when he tried to separate the animals the lion "got very angry". The Tainan county government seized the surviving cubs, relocating them to a home for wild animals in another southern county. Huang faces a fine of up to NT$50,000 for unauthorised breeding of wildlife. In a similar case, a lion and jaguar in Canada that pined when separated produced unintended hybrids in a Canadian rescue centre.
G Peters included several hybrids (liger, tigon, leopon, leguar) in his "Comparative Investigation of Vocalisation in Several Felids" published in German in Spixiana-Supplement, 1978; (1): 1-206.
WHITE LIGERS, GOLDEN LIGERS
White tigers have been crossed with lions to produce white ligers. Everland Zoo (Yongin Farm Zoo) in Seoul, Korea claimed to have produced white ligers. Big Cat Rescue's white tiger apparently co-habitates with a lion, as it was the intention of the original owner to breed white ligers. Golden tigers have been crossed with lions to produce golden ligers. In theory snow white tigers could be crossed with white lions to produce truly white ligers. White tigons or golden tigons are also possible, but because tigons do not attain the huge size of the liger there is far less interest in breeding them.
In January 2014, Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina, also claimed to have produced the first ever white ligers (although Yongin Farm Zoo may have beaten them to this by a few years). The four male cubs were born to white lion "Ivory" and a snow white tigress called Saraswati. The cubs were named Yeti, Odin, Sampson and Apollo. They have creamy golden bodies with darker golden faces and narrow black stripes on the legs, paler brown stripes on the body and black spots on the face.
A black liger would be an impressive creature, but to breed one would require both a melanistic tiger and a melanistic lion because the gene for black must be inherited from both parents and to guarantee a black liger requires both parents to be black. Very few true melanistic tigers have ever been recorded. Most "black tigers" are due to pseudo-melanism i.e. the markings are so heavy that the tawny background colour is almost hidden. No reports of black lions have ever been substantiated.
In felines, "blue" means a slate-grey colour. Genetically, it is a form of melanism where the colour has been diluted from black to grey. To breed a blue liger would require a blue (i.e.grey) tiger and a black lion (or black tiger and blue lion. Or blue tiger and blue lion). Blue tigers have been recorded in China, but none have occurred in captivity. To date, no grey lions have been recorded.
WHY ARE LIGERS SO MUCH BIGGER THAN TIGONS?
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
Historical accounts of ligers and tigons (chronological order): CJ Cornish et al (undated), R De Davison (1863), K Ackermann (1898), A Rörig (1903), Deutshe Landwirtshaftliche Presse (1904), Boettger (1906), T Noack (1908), A Sokolowsky (1909), H Przibram (1910), SS Flower (1929), L Reisinger (1929), Sir PC Mitchell (1930), H Heck (1932), RI Pocock (1935), CWG Eifrig (1937), WA Craft (1938), L Heck (1941), VG Stefko and VP Narskii (1946), B E—(1946), American Fur Breeder (1948), Illustrated (1948), H Pilcher (1948), B Grzimek (1949), A Urbain and J Rinjard (1950), P Leyhausen (1950), C Hagenbeck (1951), O Antonius (1951), H Petzsch (1951, 1956), M Burton (1952), A Kemner (1953), Farmer's Weekly Bloemfontein (1953), F Petter (1955), H Hemmer (1966, 1968), International Zoo Yearbook (1970, 1971)
Guggisberg, C. A. W. 1975. Wild cats of the world. Taplinger Publ. Co., New York
Leyhausen, P. 1950. Beobachtungen an Löwen-Tiger-Bastarden mit einigen Bemerkungen zur Systematik der Grosskatzen. Z. Tierpsychol., 7:46-83.
Robinson's Genetics for Cat Breeders & Veterinarians 4th Ed (the current version)
LIGER, LIGER - WITH APOLOGIES TO WILLIAM BLAKE
Liger, liger, burning bright,
Such huge weight and such great height,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Huge as pony, hearth-cat tame,
Unlike the cats for whom you're named
Tigress mother, lion sire,
But you inherit neither's ire.
Your threat to man not wrath, but size;
While there's no malice in your eyes,
The hazard lies in frame and strength -
In play you may endanger men.
Liger, liger, burning bright,
Half-hearted in both mane and stripe,
No place does nature have for thee,
Bred by men's curiosity.
Textual content (except for "Liger, Liger") is licensed under the GFDL.
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