Tigers are one of the easiest of the big cats to identify because of their dramatic striped coats. Jaguars and leopards have their rosette spots, lions have their golden fur and male lions their mane, but tigers are unique as they strut around jungles and grasslands with their vertical-striped markings, which range from brown to black. We know nature doesn’t do much by accident or for no reason, so what are the stripes on tigers for?
A Tiger’s Stripes Provide Camouflage
Since tigers are apex predators at the tippy-top of the food chain, they don’t need to worry about hiding from animals that might eat them. But as a solitary cat (tigers are not pack animals and do not hunt in a group like lions do), the tiger relies on pure stealth for its hunting. Here’s where the tiger’s markings become very handy. They work in a way that biologists call “disruptive coloration,” breaking up a tiger’s bulky shape and large size so that this magnificent creature can blend in better with trees and tall grasses. When in the forest or the jungle, its black stripes and brown fur imitate dappled sunlight. These stripes help it to camouflage with filtered sunlight and the shadow of trees so that it can’t be easily spotted by its prey.
You may be thinking, in a dark green jungle, wouldn’t bright orange and black stripes be super obvious? While this color combination makes a tiger relatively easy to spot for human eyes, recent research published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface used computer simulations and image processing techniques to see how detectable a species is in its natural environment to other native animals in the same habitat. Humans have what is called a trichromat eye, meaning our vision can process red, blue and green-based colors, giving us the ability to see tigers appearing as orange. Mammals that tigers hunt, like deer, are only able to process blue and green, making them obliviously colorblind to orange. So for an unsuspecting deer, a hunting tiger would blend into the environment fairly seamlessly.
Further evidence that tiger markings are for camouflage is that stripes vary among the six tiger subspecies. The Sumatran tiger subspecies, for example, has stripes that are a lot more narrow than other tigers’ stripes, and it also has a larger quantity of stripes. It tends to hang out in dense jungle, and these kinds of stripes are very well adapted to its specific environment. Fun fact: it’s not just a tiger’s fur that has black stripes. If you were to shave off all of the fur, its skin underneath would show the same exact markings, almost appearing as though they were tattooed! Also, each tiger’s stripe patterns are completely unique, as distinct as human fingerprints.
What Other Animals Have Stripes?
Tigers aren’t the only animals using the “stripes as camouflage” technique. Bongos (the third-largest antelope in the world), have as many as 10 to 15 white stripes on their bodies over a chestnut-brown colored coat, allowing them to blend into the background of their habitats. Okapis, also known as forest giraffes, are often confused as being a relative of the zebra because of their very similar striping pattern. They have a chocolate-reddish brown coat with white horizontal stripes located on the back, rings of white stripes on their legs, and white fur on their ankles. Not only does this setup camouflage them in the middle of the dense vegetation of their natural habitat, but some scientists think that these patterns also help young okapi to find and follow their mother in the rain forest.
From big to little, land to sea, many other animals also use stripes to either help keep them from being hunted or to help them hunt, including the striped marlin, striped hyena, tapir and Indian palm squirrel. Even tiny bumblebees use stripes, especially around their back end, to direct potential predators into associating them with other toxic insects with powerful stingers, a survival tactic known as Müllerian mimicry.
In addition to providing camouflage, some scientists think that zebra stripes may help protect their thin hair from being bit by horseflies and tsetse flies, which transmit diseases like sleeping sickness, African horse sickness and the potentially fatal equine influenza. Even though tsetse fly populations thrive in zebra country, analyses of tsetse flies’ diets found no trace of zebra blood. Under observation, the flies would try to land on the stripes but then fail to decelerate as they normally would when approaching a non-striped surface. In the end, they would just bounce off, confused, and move along to a different surface or animal.
Thermoregulation has long been suggested by scientists as another possible function of zebra stripes. They would get the best of both worlds—their black stripes would help absorb heat in the morning and warm them up, whereas their white stripes would reflect the blazing afternoon sun and help keep them cool in their main grazing hours.
See Tigers on Safari with Nat Hab
If you want to try your hand at observing gorgeously-striped tigers in their natural habitat, Nat Hab offers a safari expedition in India to spot majestic Bengal tigers, whose numbers are thankfully on the rise after a century of decline. Bandhavgarh, filled with expansive grasslands and hilly terrain, boasts one of the country’s highest concentrations of Bengal tigers. It was originally established as a 444-square-mile national park in 1968 and then declared a protected tiger reserve under Project Tiger in 1993. Whereas Bandhavgarh was once a popular hunting reserve for the Maharajahs of Rewa (Maharaja Raman Singh himself was proud of shooting 111 tigers by 1914), Nat Hab guests can now enjoy this park as a wonderful example of tiger protection.
Kanha National Park in central India in the Satpura Hills is another one of India’s most important conservation reserves. It’s said that its bamboo forests, grassy meadows and ravines were the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Kanha was established as a national park in 1955 and is a central part of the Kanha Tiger Reserve, created in 1974 under India’s Project Tiger. Here you can practice spotting the tiger as it camouflages itself, as it can be a bit trickier to spot them in the sun-dappled scrub forest. To help, our guides will bring guests to the Banjaar River that borders the park, where Bengal tigers will often come out of hiding from under trees and bushes to drink water and seek relief from the heat.
Tigers’ beautiful striped coats help them hunt successfully, but it’s also one of the main reasons why they’re endangered. They are killed by poachers for their beautiful pelts which sell at astronomical prices on the black market. Ecotourism is integral to tiger conservation in India. When conservation-minded operators, guides and travelers practice responsible ecotourism, local communities and native wildlife reap the rewards.