Growing up in the 90s it seemed every children’s zoology book imaginable featured snow tigers. The images are hard to forget — picturesque white tigers with dark stripes and crystal blue eyes. As a kid, seeing those photos was all the proof I needed. It made sense in my child mind, after all, that an animal adapted for life in the snow would be white for better camouflage.
Those books could not be farther from the truth.
While some animals have adapted to have white fur to aid in blending in with the snow, tigers are not one of them. Making this situation even more strange is the fact that the white gene is exclusively found in Bengal tigers, a subspecies known primarily to inhabit the dry forests of India — far from any snow covered hills.
So, where is the truth in the existence of snow tigers?
To get answers, one must travel to the remote forests of the Russian Far East. No documentation in 2022 would lead you to snow tigers or even Siberian tigers, instead, you would be pointed to the Amur tiger.
Amur tiger is the modern recognized name for this subspecies due to the fact that the Amur River runs directly through their habitat. The name ‘Siberian’ tiger came about because this subspecies was originally found across much of Siberia but habitat loss mixed with poaching has decreased their range.
In the 1940s, it was on the brink of extinction with fewer than 50 individuals remaining in the wild. Decades of near continual political instability with the Russian Revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union is usually point at the source for this decline.
In 1947 after World War 2, Russia became the first country to ban tiger hunting and offer tigers full protection. Hunting of the main prey species, boar and deer, became restricted by annual quota based on the results of population counts. Poaching of tigers became relatively rare, because there was no market for skins and other tiger products, although hunters on occasion killed their “competitor” when an opportunity presented itself.
The habitat of this northern big cat ranges from tundra, to humid forests, to coniferous bush-covered mountains up to 1,200 meters or slightly under 4,000 feet. They occupy the largest tract of contiguous forest remaining on earth. Apart from the rarity of the tigers, this in itself is of conservational significance as the area is the most biologically diverse in Russia.
Lighter coloured fur throughout the year helps Amur tigers blend in better with their unique environment, even more so in winter when their already pale orange fur fades even more. Their coat is also naturally longer and thicker than other subpopulations to better aid them in the colder climate. In fact, they even have somewhat of a mane around their neck and extra fur around their paws, like a built-in scarf and mittens!
Besides their change in fur colour, Amur tigers also have a dramatically different sized body. They are the world’s largest cat species — with males weighing in between 397 to 674 lbs. Females are slightly smaller, ranging in weight from 220 to 368 lbs.
Two rules of ecology help identify what makes Amur tigers the way they are: Bergman’s Rule and Geist’s Rule. Bergman’s rule states that body size increases with latitude and hence decreasing temperature so that body surface area to volume ratios fall, and therefore in northern latitudes bigger tigers would lose less heat and need relatively less energy than smaller tigers. Geist’s Rule states similar circumstances, noting body size increases with increasing latitude, owing to an increase in the duration and amplitude of the seasonal productivity peak.
Put simply: Amur tigers are the snow tigers of our childhoods.
So, if you can’t rely on children’s books to teach your kids the proper knowledge regarding snow tigers, where can you go? It’s possible your local accredited zoo can be a great resource! Many zoos, especially those in northern climates, house Amur tigers including the Toronto Zoo. If you’re fortunate enough, you may even be able to catch a glimpse of them frolicking in the snow during the winter.
Want to see an Amur tiger from the comfort of your own home? Visit www.zoolife.tv today to see Mazy, Mila, and Vasili as they go about their lives at the Toronto Zoo.