Ligers are an interesting breed, to say the least. They are the hybrid offspring of a male lion and a female tiger, and only exist in captivity. Currently in the wild, lions and tigers share only one small patch of forest in western India as a common habitat, and thus, ligers haven’t been documented outside of zoos or animal shelters. The first mention of ligers dates back to at least as early as the late 18th century in India, with the term ‘liger’ first coined sometime before the 1930s. Here are some interesting facts about them – and no, they aren’t an animal made up by Napoleon Dynamite.
10. Liger History and Origins
In recent years, ligers have made it into the spotlight as one of the most bizarre creatures out there, but the fact of the matter is that it’s relatively hard to pinpoint the origins of these animals. The first mention of this hybrid ‘species’ comes from the French naturalist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who in 1798 made a color plate of the offspring of a lion and a tiger. The program to crossbreed lions and tigers seems to have started around that time in India under the British, and several other paintings and depictions of ligers appeared during that time by various artists and zoologists. In 1837, two baby ligers were born and they were presented to King William IV and Queen Victoria.
Later, in 1897, three more cubs were born in Hamburg, Germany. However, the first to mention ligers for what they are, namely lion-tiger hybrids, was A.H. Bryden, who wrote about them in the Animal Life and the World of Nature magazine, in 1902. The Bloemfontein Zoo in South Africa was the first to take care of ligers as early as 1935. Today, ligers can be found in zoos and sanctuaries all across the world, but by far the most are found in the United States.
9. Basic Characteristics of a Liger
As we’ve said before, ligers are the offspring of male lions and female tigers, thus giving us the word ‘liger’ – a combination of lion and tiger. Today, there are roughly 200 of this hybrid species of big cat. And because of their small numbers, it is relatively hard to pinpoint with great accuracy all the characteristics of a liger. Nevertheless, the average liger can weigh around 900 pounds, with the biggest reaching a whopping 1,600 pounds. By comparison, lions and tigers can only weigh a maximum of 500 and 600 pounds respectively. Ligers can also grow to be 12 feet in length, making them the biggest cats in the world. Its mouth is as big as an average man’s shoulders, by the way.
But because baby ligers are larger than average tiger cubs, the tigress usually requires a C-section be performed in order to give birth to one. Typically after 60 days, a liger cub weighs around 16 pounds, whereas a baby tiger only weighs 9. During their formation period, ligers add an extra pound per day. It was a common misconception that ligers continued to grow throughout their entire lives due to some hormonal imbalances, but this turned out to be false. Like their parents, ligers stop growing in length and shoulder height after about six years. Nevertheless, they are prone to obesity and can eat as much as 100 pounds of meat at a single sitting. Because of that, caretakers usually feed them only 25 to 30 pounds of food per day. Interestingly enough, most ligers alive today have been the result of accidental mating taking place in captivity where lions and tigers were held together. Another interesting fact about ligers is that they are the largest carnivorous animal on land and second largest in the world after the southern elephant seal. Bears, by the way, including the polar bear, are omnivorous.
8. Appearance and Personality
Lions and tigers are different species of cat, have different habitats for the most part, and have different lifestyles. As a result, they look and behave differently. Ligers, on the other hand, present characteristics from both species. They have a large, muscular body and their fur has a sandy, dark-yellowish color. Their head and body structure is more similar to that of a lion, even though the liger also presents some faint stripes on its body like a tiger. Male ligers can also grow a mane, even though it’s not as big or as impressive as a lion’s. Their tails, however, are similar to a tiger’s. When it comes to their roar, it sounds like a lion’s, but it is, nevertheless, unique. In some situations it can also sound like a tiger.
When it comes to their personality, ligers are highly social creatures, and if left to their own devices, they would probably live in prides like lions, even though some speculate that they would prefer the habitat of a tiger. Ligers are also excellent swimmers and love to be around water like tigers. Surprisingly enough, though, ligers are more docile than both their parents. When fully grown both male lions and tigers can become extremely violent and territorial, but ligers remain relatively calm throughout their entire lives. This, of course, doesn’t mean that you should approach one without caution or without a trainer present.
7. Ligers in the Wild
To date, there are no official reports of ligers living in the wild, and most of what we do have is nothing more than rumors and speculation. It is still important to note that the habitats of tigers and lions have been severely diminished over the past several centuries, but in the past, there were regions, particularly in India, where both species lived together. Moreover, there were some rumors from the 19th century where some ‘large brown cats’, larger than both lions and tigers, were spotted roaming the countryside, and some have speculated these to be wild ligers. So, in theory it is possible that ligers have lived in the wild, fully independent from human intervention.
Some have speculated that ligers cannot survive in the wild, but other specialists don’t agree. For starters, places like India, Africa, and North and South America could be perfect habitats for the liger to live in the wild. During the last Ice Age, similar sized cats like the saber tooth or the cave lion have lived in both the Americas and the Eurasian continent, so it wouldn’t be completely unheard of for such super predators to survive. In fact, chances are that it might thrive under normal circumstances. A liger can chase its prey with ease, reaching speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. And given its huge size, it can easily bring down big game. Given the fact that they are social animals and that they enjoy swimming, they would also have an edge on both lions and tigers in the wild. But if all else failed, the liger could also be a great scavenger, chasing away smaller predators from their kill.
There are several factors that might not allow ligers to survive in the wild. One is the possibility of insufficient food given its huge size, as well as the idea that it might tire too quickly to be able to successfully catch anything it was chasing. Another reason is that, being a hybrid species, male ligers have a harder time reproducing. To date, no male ligers were ever successful in producing an offspring and there has never been a pure liger cub. But given the small number of ligers in existence, the evidence of their infertility is circumstantial and needs further study.
It wouldn’t be fair to talk about ligers so much without mentioning their cousins, the tigons. Lions and tigers are able to breed with each other because they’re genetically similar enough that their chromosomes can pair up and produce offspring. So, as we’ve said before, ligers are the cubs of a male lion and a tigress, whereas tigons are the offspring of a male tiger and a female lion. Today, the number of tigons is smaller than that of ligers, probably because they are harder to breed because tigers find lioness’ courtship behavior harder to read. A more probable case is that tigons are not as big, and thus, not as interesting for the public as ligers are. Nevertheless, in the mid 1900s, zoologist Gerald Iles said that he was familiar with tigons but had never seen a liger, suggesting that tigons were more widespread than ligers.
In any case, like the ligers, tigons exhibit traits and characteristics from both parents. The biggest difference between the two hybrid species, though, is the fact that tigons are usually the same size as a lion, whereas ligers are much larger. Tigons can only reach a weight of about 450 pounds and about 9 feet long. They also resemble tigers more than lions, and are not as muscular or as robust as either species. Their stripes are more visible than those of ligers, and males also have a mane.
5. Titigons, Tiligers, Litigons and Liligers
As these names suggest, these hybrids are the result of crossbreeding between either a lion and a tigon resulting in a litigon, or a tiger and a liger, resulting in a tiliger, and so on. But as we’ve said before, in all of these cases both the tigons and ligers were female, while the tigers and lions were male. In each of these situations, the cubs present more and more features of its father’s species and characteristics, since those genes represent 75% of the entire makeup. Difference in appearance may vary between all of these hybrids, depending on the subspecies of lions or tigers used. There have been no successfully recorded pairings between two ligers, or two tigons, or one tigon and one liger.
Now, even though ligers and tigons are the most common big cat hybrids out there, it might come as a surprise to know that lions are more closely related to leopards and jaguars than they are to tigers. In other words, the common ancestor of lions, leopards, and jaguars split from other cats roughly 4.3 to 3.8 million years ago, while the common ancestor of tigers and snow leopards evolved some 3.9 million years ago. Then, some 3.2 million years ago, tigers began to evolve into a unique species, while lions and leopards split sometime in between 3.1 to 2 million years ago. This means that lions, leopards, and jaguars can all have viable offspring with each other, but tigers can only have live cubs with lions. So, for those of you interested out there, the baby of a male lion and a female leopard is called a lipard, while its opposite is a leopon. A jaguar and a leopard can produce either a jagupard or a laguar, while a lion and a jaguar can have a liguar or a jaglion.
4. Behavioral Problems
Now, crossbreeding these species of cat can have some side effects as well. For starters, there’s the issue of possible infertility in males. Secondly, because of the fact that ligers or tigons, or lipards, are a product of two different species with two different behavioral patterns, they may end up exhibiting emotional or behavioral conflicts. For instance, they can inherit a mixed ‘vocabulary’; let’s say, both a lion’s roar and a tiger’s chuff. Then there’s the possibility of a female liger going through mixed feelings associated with her desire to be part of a pride and a sisterhood of lionesses, while at the same time exhibit desires of isolation typical of tigers and their intolerance towards constant company.
There have also been cases of a purebred mother being confused by her cub’s odd behavior. For instance, a lioness mother was confused and distressed by her leopon (leopard & lioness) cub climbing trees and swimming in water. Lions rarely do either of these things, but leopards do. In second generation hybrids like the above mentioned tiligers, liligers, titigons, and litigons, these discrepancies seem to die down, with the cubs following traits and behaviors in accordance with the genes of the predominant species. Nevertheless, opponents of deliberate hybridization insist that this causes the animals to become confused and depressed, especially after reaching sexual maturity.
3. The Elusive White Ligers
It is truly a wonder of nature to see a white lion or a white tiger, so you can imagine what it must mean for a white liger to exist, right? Well, as of 2013, there are four white ligers in existence, all of them being located at the Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina. There were some rumors about white ligers coming in from South Korea but there were no videos or photos to back them up. Nevertheless, the four white ligers that we do know of are named Yeti, Odin, Sampson, and Apollo, and are the offspring of a white lion named Ivory and a white tigress called Saraswati.
Currently, there are only about 300 white lions left in the world and 1,200 white tigers. When it comes to color, completely black is what everyone is after. But to produce a black liger, both parents would need to be melanistic black. But while some black tigers are known to exist, black lions have never been reported, even if some photos do circulate around the internet.
2. Rocky the Killer Liger
Ligers might seem to be more peaceful than lions or tigers, and even though they were bred in captivity, they are incredibly dangerous animals, not to be underestimated. Back in 2008, Peter Getz, a caretaker at the Safari’s Animal Sanctuary in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, broke protocol and entered Rocky the liger’s enclosure in order to feed him. Under normal circumstances, Rocky, as well as the other dangerous animals at the sanctuary, were fed with a pole through the fence. Unfortunately, however, the caretaker disregarded this procedure for some reason and was attacked by the 1,000 pound liger. Bleeding heavily, he somehow managed to carry himself out of the enclosure with the help of two other caretakers. He was airlifted to a nearby hospital, but died the following day. Getz was 32-years-old at the time and had been working at the animal sanctuary for more than a year.
Rocky was at the shelter for over 10 years prior to the accident, and he got there after the zoo in North Carolina where he was kept closed down. Lori Ensign, the sanctuary’s owner, said that when Rocky was younger, she would ride him like a pony, and he had a “very individualistic, nice, personality.” But what Peter Getz must have forgotten was the fact that it can only take one time, one wrong move, or one misinterpretation on the liger’s part and it can attack without hesitation. There were debates whether to put him down or not, but in the end they didn’t. Rocky did eventually die of natural causes in 2014. To date, he is the only liger in the world to have ever killed a human being.
As you can imagine, not everyone is happy with the existence of these hybrid cats in the first place. There are a lot of reasons why many people are upset with the existence of ligers. For starters, they only exist and are bred in captivity. Moreover, there is speculation that, being a crossbreed between two species, they can have a higher rate of birth defects and hormonal imbalances. There is also the case of the before-mentioned behavioral and emotional problems that may arise between the hybrid cubs and their purebred mother, as well as the symptoms of depression some experience after reaching sexual maturity.
Others critics complain about the fact that zoo keepers force two species of animals to mate. In fact, in Taiwan this practice of pairing two animals of different species is illegal. When it comes to ligers, their large size, even while still in the womb, can pose a serious threat to the mother. Liger specialists, however, wish to debunk as many of these issues if possible, but in order to do that, further study is needed, and to do that, more ligers are required.