Tigers are identified by their characteristic stripes, which adorn their dense, beautiful fur. In fact, children are first taught to differentiate between the wild cats by noting the patterns that they display. Leopards have rosettes, cheetahs have spots and tigers have gorgeous bold stripes running across the width of their bodies. Although different species vary slightly, the base coat is generally a golden hue, the stripes ranging from dark brown or grey to black, and the underside of the tiger white.
Interestingly, the skin of the tiger is also striped beneath the patterned fur. The darkness of the pigmentation of the skin seems to be directly related to the darkness of the fur.
Every tiger, as an individual animal, has a unique pattern of stripes. Therefore, scientists that are studying a particular animal may use these to identify their subject(s). This colouring and striped design is ideal for the camouflage needs of the animal. The earthy tones of the undercoat blend in with the natural reeds, trees and grasses around them, while the black stripes break the appearance of a solid form (in the eyes of potential prey) and help the animal to be hidden in the shades of the trees. When stalking its prey, the tiger is likely to crouch amongst the long grasses, where they are well hidden, before leaping out on unsuspecting victims.
The fur density is dependent on the area and climate in which the animal lives. So, in cooler, wetter climates, the tigers develop a thicker, longer coat. In cooler areas, the coat of the tiger is considerably thinner and shorter. Underneath this fur is a soft layer of warm, fluffy fur.
Tigers have a white spot of fur on the back of each of their ears, which are called ocelli. These act as pseudo-eyes to threaten other animals, giving the impression that the tiger is aware of its surroundings at all times, even when it is looking in the opposite direction. They are also used in communication amongst tigers, as they swivel their ears around and display these eye spots, even to animals that are right in front of them.
Although they are not species or sub-subspecies in their own rights, there are colour variations of the tiger. These are known as White Tigers and Black Tigers. White Tigers have very pale grey or brown stripes on otherwise snowy-coloured fur. Black Tigers are very dark grey, even charcoal, with pitch black stripes. Both of these variations are exquisite, and a real treat when spotted as they are so rare. They are both variations of the Bengal species of tiger.
Unfortunately, the pelts of tigers are in high demand for a number of different purposes. These are not only for decorative or ornamental purposes, but also for their perceived medicinal value. The skin is believed to cure fevers that are induced by the spirits of the deceased when the victim sits on it. In addition, burning tiger fur is thought to drive centipedes away. In twisted irony, the very beauty and splendour of the tiger has proven to be its downfall. Its numbers have diminished to such an extent as a result of hunting it for, largely, its pelt that it is dangerously endangered.
The tiger population of the world is very precious to us, as humankind, not only for their undeniable beauty but also for their contribution to the ecological value of the planet. It is incumbent upon us to educate and protect.