Besides being the largest cat in the world, the tiger is also one of the most iconic creatures on earth. Coming in at around 11 feet long and weighing over 600 pounds, this fierce hunter used to be abundant all across Asia, from eastern Russia all the way to western Turkey. Unfortunately, much of the population has disappeared over the past century because of hunting, poaching, and the destruction of their natural habitats. Only six of the original nine species are left, and fewer than four thousand individual animals remain.
Here are ten unusual - but fascinating - facts about this majestic animals.
White tigers usually have blue eyes, while most others have yellow eyes
This is a matter of genetics. White tigers are leucocystic, which means they possess a recessive gene causing them to lack darker colors. Consequently, the gene linked to blue eyes is typically connected to that white color. The same goes for the genes for lighter brown stripes and being cross-eyed. So most tigers with white fur also have crossed blue eyes. Other tigers, like the Siberian and Bengal, possess those striking gold or yellow eyes that we're all so familiar with.
Their urine smells like popcorn
Strange, but true! Like all cats both wild and domestic, tigers are solitary animals and highly protective of their territory. Sometimes their domains overlap each other and they need to let others know where it starts and ends. To do this, adults scratch at the trees on the edge of their territory and spray it with their urine - which, to humans, would smell surprisingly similar to buttered popcorn. Individual scents inform neighboring tigers about the creature's gender, age, and whether the first is open to mating. Depending on the message, the smell tells them to either, "Come on over!" or "Back off!"
Tigers cannot purr
Unlike their domesticated cousins, most big cats - including tigers - are physically unable to purr. When they want to show they're happy, they squint instead or maybe close their eyes completely for a moment. Some owners of domestic cats call it the "kitty kiss." And just like with house cats, wild cats will only do this if they feel safe and secure. Since tigers can't afford to let their defenses down in the wild, doing so is a clear sign that they feel content and can relax for a few minutes.
Tigers have killer short-term memories
You've heard the saying, "an elephant never forgets," right? Well, apparently, neither do tigers! They have one of the best short-term memories of any animal on the planet, and that's because their brains are composed of stronger synapses than most other creatures - including us. Their short-term memories last around thirty times longer than ours does. To put that in perspective, ours average out at around 20 to 30 seconds. That takes a tiger's memory to at least ten minutes. Minutes.
In captivity, tigers can mate with lions
Genetics are strange. There's no denying that. With lions, the males have the genes to create larger babies. But the females kind of interfere with that with their own genetics, which means the offspring end up being smaller. Tigers don't have those kinds of limitations in their genetic makeup. So when a male lion impregnates a female tiger, the end result is an enormous liger. These animals can weigh half a ton and measure at almost twelve feet! By contrast, a female lion and male tiger produce the tigon, which weighs less than half what the liger does. Still, that's nothing to sneeze at!
Their fur contains hidden symbols
This is mainly a matter of perception, but it's cool, nonetheless. Each tiger possesses a unique pattern of stripes, much like no two humans have the same set of fingerprints. But if you look on a tiger's forehead, chances are you'll see a pattern that looks an awful lot like the Chinese character for "king." Because of this, Chinese culture considers the tiger a regal creature. Even without that symbol hidden in their fur, they're still terribly impressive.
If a tiger backhands you, it can kill you
Tigers prefer to go for the jugular to kill their prey. Just the same, there's enough power in their paws to accomplish the same end. A single swipe has been shown to break a bear's back or even smash its skull in. Likewise, their roar has a unique feature that can paralyze a human. Besides being very, very loud (they can be heard from two miles out), the roar of a tiger also hides growls with such a low pitch that we can't hear them. But boy, can we feel them! Those silent infrasounds are more than enough to make us stop in our tracks.
Tigers will imitate other animal calls to entice their prey
If you own a house cat, you've probably seen them at the window making chirping noises while watching the birds and squirrels. That's their natural hunting instinct kicking in, and it's how they would attract their prey if they had to hunt for it. Tigers are very similar in that respect, except that they imitate much larger targets. Bears are a favorite meal, and it's been witnessed that tigers will imitate a bear's prey to lure them in close enough to make a kill.
They come with more than just orange and white coats
Most of us associate orange or white coats with Asian tigers. Actually, they can come in a variety of colors, including black and gold. While there have also been reports of blue tigers in China, officials have been unable to verify their existence. Most internet pictures have been debunked as being Photoshopped, so this one is unconfirmed.
The male tiger's penis is barbed
You read that right. Male tigers can't become erect when they're aroused, so they've found a way to compensate for this. Instead they have a bone called the baculum, and the barbs help the mating animals to "stay connected," so to speak, until the deed is done. Ouch ...