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Year of the Tiger

Celebrate the 2022 Lunar New Year with highlights from the collection

Sumatran tiger on black background

The Lunar New Year 2022 ushers in the Year of the Tiger, which is celebrated in many Asian countries such as China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia. In the story of the Jade Emperor’s race, the tiger, with its competitive nature, confidence, and unpredictability, ran a good race but the current in the river sent it a little off course. It recovered enough to cross the line behind the ox, and so comes in at number three in the Chinese zodiac.

To celebrate the Lunar New Year, we invite you to learn about the natural history of the brave, adventurous tiger and explore highlights from the museum collection connected to the tiger—both the tiger itself and “tiger” bugs, fish, snakes, and more!

The Tiger 

Tigers are the largest living cats and belong to a single species, Panthera tigris. There is debate about how many subspecies there are, but currently up to six living subspecies are recognized: Bengal tiger (P. t. tigris), Amur tiger (P. t. altaica), South China tiger (P. t. amoyensis), Sumatran tiger (P. t. sumatrae), Indochinese tiger (P. t. corbetti), and Malayan tiger (P. t. jacksoni). Tigers live in several parts of Asia, although their populations are fragmented and they have been extirpated (gone locally extinct) in most regions where they used to live. All tiger subspecies are endangered or critically endangered and current estimates are that there are fewer than 5,000 individuals in the wild. Tigers are generally solitary predators that prey on large ungulates (a hoofed mammal). The body size of tigers has a wide range, from 200 to 900 lbs (90–420 kg), with the Amur tigers being the largest and the Sumatran tigers being the smallest. 

The word “tiger” has been used as a misnomer for other mammals such as the Tasmanian tiger (the extinct marsupial thylacine) and the saber tooth tiger (saber-tooth cat). Some people jokingly call chipmunks timber tigers. Many other animals also have “tiger” in their name, like the tiger salamander, four species of tiger herons, tiger shrike, tiger rattlesnake, tiger rat snake, tiger swallowtail, tiger beetle, tiger shark, and African tigerfish that eats birds! These names can refer to stripes on the animal or to the perceived ferocity of the animal as a predator. 

The Museum's Mammalogy Collection cares for twenty tiger specimens from India, Myanmar, Russia, Thailand, Sumatra, and zoos. The specimens are mostly skulls, but also include some full skeletons and pelts.  

A virtual tiger and “tiger” tour through the Museum collections:  

Sumatran Tiger 

Sumatran Tiger Close up on hear
This taxidermy Sumatran tiger was a captive mortality that died at 19 years of age, which is quite old for a tiger.  The specimen was mounted in 1995 by Museum Taxidermist, Tim Bovard, for a traveling exhibition called Cats Wild to Mild and is currently on exhibition in the Age of Mammals Hall at NHM.

Amur Tiger Skull

Amur Tiger Skull
This is an Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) skull, sometimes called Siberian tigers, the largest of the tiger subspecies and can measure up to 10 feet and weigh over 600 pounds.  This skull is from Sibera and was a very old tiger with extremely worn teeth. LACM8572. 

Western Tiger Swallowtail

Western Tiger Swallowtail
Western tiger swallowtails (Papilio rutulus) are a common butterfly species found in the Western United States. These large and showy butterflies get their names from their yellow and black “tiger” stripes and long, barn swallow tails.

African Tigerfish

African Tigerfish
African Tigerfish (Hydrocynus vitattus), are aptly described as fierce and voracious predators that feed on whatever prey is most abundant. They get their “tiger” name from their distinctive, disproportionately large interlocking teeth, which are razor-sharp. The African Tigerfish is the first freshwater fish recorded and confirmed to attack and catch birds in flight! LACM 30305-1.

Tiger RATTLESnake 

Tiger Snake
This tiger rattlesnake (Crotalus tigris) is a venomous pit viper and feeds on small mammals and lizards. Their species name, tigris, is the Latin word for “tiger” and refers to the crossbands on the dorsum (or topside) of the snake.

Bengal Tiger Skull 

Bengal Tiger Skull
This tiger (Panthera tigris) skull shows the distinctive longer canine teeth which can measure between 2.5 - 3 inches (6.4 - 7.6 cm).  The strong jaws are used to grasp moving prey and the carnassial teeth work to help these carnivores shear chunks of meat from their prey.  LACM51572.   

Tiger’s Eye Quartz

Tiger’s Eye Quartz
This mountain lion fetish, or small carving, is made of tiger’s eye quartz. It was carved by Navajo (Diné) artist, Herbert Davis, c. 1991. This variety of quartz gets its “tiger” name from the beautiful striations made of inclusions of iron and quartz which give the stone a striped appearance. NHM F.A.3575.97-3324
Necklace with Tiger’s eye quartz
This necklace, cared for by the Museum’s Ethnology department was made by Zuni (A:Shiwi) artists, Terri & Smokey Gchachu in 1985. The pendant includes an edge inlaid with tiger’s eye quartz, as well as turquoise, black coral, and a three-point diamond.  NHM F.P.4.85-97

Tiger Shark 

Tiger Shark
Tiger Shark
This alcohol-preserved tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) is housed in the Museum’s Ichthyology collection and is a neonate specimen. The distinctive “tiger” stripes can be seen on the dorsal side of the small specimen, which could have grown to be 11 to 14 feet long and weigh 800 to 1,400 pounds. LACM 38229-16.

Tiger Shark Jaws 

Tiger Shark and two jaws
Tiger shark’s (Galeocerdo cuvier) have notched teeth that distinctly point sideways.  These teeth have a dual function in that they help the shark grasp onto their prey– which is usually trying to break free– and cut through their prey with their serrated teeth.  Small jaws: LACM 38178-1. Large jaws: LACM 39591-1
Tiger shark teeth close up
Tiger sharks have rows of teeth which are identical in both their upper and lower jaw.  These teeth are attached to soft tissue and fall out often.  This adaptation allows for worn or broken teeth to be replaced with new sharper teeth– these rows act like a conveyor belt!

Tiger Shark Swords

Sword with sharp shape teeth on edge
Humans also realized the effectiveness of the tiger shark’s serrated teeth and used them to make formidable weapons. This sword from Nauru, an island country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, has its blade lined with tiger shark teeth. Its handle is decorated with interwoven pandanus leaf and braided human hair. From Nauru, collected in 1912.  NHM A.5453.45-20
Sword made of wood with shark teeth on edge
This sword is over 200 years old (c. 1780) and is likely from Kiribati, an independent island nation in the central Pacific Ocean.  The sword contains large tiger shark teeth along the edge. NHM A.8043.73-607 A

Barbaraann's Tiger Beetle

Barbaraann's Tiger Beetle
Barbaraann's Tiger Beetle
(C. politula barbaraanae). Tiger beetles are impressive hunters, just like their name implies. They can run at speeds of up to 5.6 mph to chase down their prey (that’s 125 body lengths per second!) Their fierce predator abilities are matched by their beauty; there is a dazzling variety of patterns and metallic hues on glorious display across the 2,600 known species. Tiger beetles are found in wide-open sandy habitats, clay banks, or woodland paths where they can run and fly in short bursts without a lot of vegetation to get in their way.

Splendid Tiger Beetle

Splendid Tiger Beetle
Splendid Tiger Beetle
Behold the splendor of the splendid tiger beetle! This North American species (Cicindela splendida) has a broad range of color patterns depending on the individual, from predominantly deep burgundies to stunning mermaid blue-greens. Like all tiger beetles, they are ferocious predators as adults and as larvae (their immature “grub” stage). While the adults actively chase their prey, the larva sits patiently in its underground burrow, its head just barely peeking out, waiting for a tasty insect to wander by so it can quickly emerge and CHOMP!

Ohlone Tiger Beetle

Ohlone Tiger Beetle
Ohlone Tiger Beetle
(Cicindela ohlone). Many tiger beetles live in very specialized habitats which makes their populations vulnerable to extinction. C. ohlone is endemic to Santa Cruz, CA, meaning it is only found in that area of the world. Many tiger beetles prefer a specific type of sandy clay soil, and C. ohlone is no exception; the remnants of coastal habitat containing Santa Cruz mudstone is the only place where this beautiful and rare beetle can survive.

Tiger Salamander

Tiger Salamander
The tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) is one of the largest terrestrial salamanders reaching over 8 in (~20 cm) in length.  Adults are typically black with yellow markings that are either in spots, blotches, bands, or stripes.

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron
Bare-throated Tiger-Heron
The three species of “tiger-herons”, including these Bare-throated Tiger-Herons (Tigrisoma mexicanum), range from Mexico to tropical South America. The feathering of adults has intricate barred patterns, but it is the juveniles, like the one held up in the photo, that are more coarsely barred in a tiger-like pattern of orange and black. Not as conspicuous as many of our herons, they inhabit streams, ponds, and other wetlands within wooded areas.

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler
These handsome male Cape May Warblers (Setophaga tigrina) are hardly reminiscent of tigers, but the orange, yellow and black markings inspired the species epithet “tigrina” (a reference to tigris, or “tiger”). They breed in Canada’s spruce forests, and their populations may boom with outbreaks of spruce budworms (which are moth larvae); for winter they migrate to the Caribbean region where they probe blossoms for nectar with their fine bills.

Brehm's Tiger-Parrot

Brehm's Tiger-Parrot
Another bird group with barred plumage earning the “tiger” moniker are the four species of “tiger parrots” of the New Guinea highlands. Shown here is the Brehm’s Tiger Parrot (Psittacella brehmii); this specimen came to the Natural History Museum from a local, Southern California zoo.

Saber-tooth cat

Saber-tooth cat articulated skeleton
The saber-toothed cat (Smilodon fatalis) is commonly called a saber-toothed tiger, but this popular name is misleading and inaccurate. Smilodon was not closely related to modern tigers, but was a member of the cat family– Felidae. The genus name Smilodon means “knife tooth” in Latin and the distinctively large canines on Smilodon could be up to 7 inches (18 cm) long! 
Mural depicting saber tooth cat and sloth at tar pit
Charles Knight (1874-1953), considered by many to be the “Father of Paleoart,” worked closely with scientists and curators throughout his career to flesh out the bones uncovered by paleontologists.  Knight was frequently hired by museums to create artworks depicting extinct animals and their environments.  This mural, painted nearly a century ago, is displayed at the La Brea Tar Pits and depicts a scene of saber-tooth cats (Smilidon fatalis) stalking giant ground sloths (Eremotherium sp.). Knight's murals are known for being spectacularly beautiful and scientifically accurate. 

Tiger Nautilus 

Swirl shell with brown tiger pattern
This Tiger nautilus (Nautilus pompilius) also commonly known as the chambered nautilus, have a tiger-like brown and white pattern on their smooth thin, spiraled shell.  This nocturnal species can live at depths of 1640 ft (~500 m) deep in the ocean and rises up closer to the surface at night. They can be found in the Indo-Pacific and this specimen was collected in the Philippines.

Tiger Moon Snail 

Tiger Moon Snail
Tiger Moon Snail on sand with foot extended
The Tiger moon snail's (Parateconatica tigrina) shell pattern is white or beige with brown or black spots, which resembles more of a leopard pattern than a tiger pattern. Their muscular foot is whitish, nearly translucent and it is used to not only help the animal glide along the surface but also to dig into sand and mud. 
Budak, iNaturalist (living specimen)

Tiger Olive

Tiger Olive Snail
The carnivorous Tiger Olive (Oliva tigrina) lives buried in the sand, where they plow about just beneath the surface, leaving a characteristic trail. Its shell pattern is cream-colored with bluish-gray spots, which resembles more of a cheetah pattern than a tiger pattern.

Tiger Snail

Tiger Snail
The Tiger snail (Achatina sp.) is a fairly large land snail reaching 7 inches (~18 cm) in length and is native to West Africa. Their distinctive "tiger" markings make them popular pets, but they are considered an invasive species in many countries, including the United States in Florida and Hawai'i— outcompeting native animals and plants and damaging agriculture. 

Tiger Egg Cowry 

  Tiger Egg Cowry
snail with striped mantle
The tiger egg cowry (Cuspivolva tigris) is a sea snail that gets its "tiger" name from its yellow-colored shell and striped pattern on the mantle of the living animal.  The mantle, an important part of the body of a mollusk, secretes calcium carbonate and a matrix of protein, carbohydrates, and lipids to form the shell.
Steven Smith, iNaturalist (living specimen)