White tigers have long been celebrated by everyone from Indian royalty to Western zoo-goers. They do not represent a separate species of tiger, but rather a rare color phase particular to one of the several subspecies found in Asia. This magnificent beast sparks meditation on the intricacies of genetics and the imperiled status of wild tigers worldwide.
A white tiger is a color mutation found in Bengal tigers, the most numerous and one of the largest subspecies in the world. There also are white hybrids of the Amur subspecies crossed with Bengals, the gene likely donated by the Bengal parent. A cub born white inherits two recessive genes from its parents. Today, white tigers are best known in captivity, where they are specially bred, but there are numerous records of such snow-coated cats in the wild in India.
White tigers are not albinos. A complete lack of pigment defines albinism; albino animals are pure white with pinkish eyes due to blood vessels close to the surface of the pupil. White tigers, by contrast, are leucistic, exhibiting reduced pigments. They usually have dark striping and blue eyes, and their background hue may trend toward creaminess. Another mutation results in white tigers with faint, nearly invisible stripes, though such animals, exceedingly rare, still possess pigments. White tigers tend to be somewhat larger and grow more quickly than the more characteristic black-and-orange Bengals lacking the expressed mutation.
White tigers in captivity exhibit a fairly high rate of physical abnormalities, such as a crushed-in muzzle (so-called "bulldog face"), lesions, stillbirths and cardiac problems. Most of this incidence likely derives from the inbreeding associated with human encouragement of the unique coloration. Much of the initial white tiger stock in captivity stemmed from a single male, Mohan, taken from the wild in 1951 and housed at the palace of the Mahajara of Rewa. To produce a new generation of white tigers, according to Deborah M. Warrick in a 2010 "Zoo's Print" article, Mohan was bred with one of his standard-colored offspring from mating with an orange Bengal tigress. This allowed expression of the recessive gene that had been suppressed in his initial litter.
The majority of the world's remaining population of Bengal tigers resides in India, though they also range into Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and China. They are threatened everywhere they are found in the wild. While Bengals are mainly solitary, they may associate in family groups, a female and her cubs, traveling and hunting together for several years. Bengal tigers target mainly large ungulates, or hoofed mammals, including various species of deer (like sambar and chital), wild pigs, water buffalo and gaur, although the cats also will pounce on monkeys, crocodiles, birds and virtually anything else they can catch. The coat of a typical Bengal, fiery orange with heavy black striping, allows it to fade seamlessly into tawny grassland, dry woods or shadowy monsoon forest.
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