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The Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) is an extinct tiger subspecies, which inhabited the sparse forests and riverine corridors west and south of the Caspian Sea, from Turkey, Mesopotamia, Iran and the Caucasus, through Central Asia to the Takla Makan desert of Xinjiang in China, until the end of the 20th century.[1][3] Depending on the region, it was also called Hyrcanian tiger, Turanian tiger,[1] Persian tiger,[4] and Babre Mazandaran (Persian: ببرِ مازندران‎‎, Tiger of Mazandaran).[5][6] It was one of the largest big cats to have ever lived and was described as being intermediate in size between Siberian and Bengal tigers.[5][7][4]

Caspian tiger
Panthera tigris virgata.jpg
Captive Caspian tiger, Berlin Zoo, 1899
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Feliformia
Family: Felidae
Genus: Panthera
Species: P. tigris
Subspecies: P. t. virgata
Trinomial name
Panthera tigris virgata
Illiger, 1815[2]
Panthera tigris virgata dis.png
Original distribution (in dark grey)
Synonyms

P. t. lecoqi, P. t. septentrionalis, and P. t. trabata

Contents

TaxonomyEdit

In 1815, Illiger assigned the scientific name P. t. virgata to the Caspian tiger.[2][3][7] Recent genetic studies have revealed that the Caspian and Siberian tiger (P. t. altaica) shared a common ancestor.[8] Since 2017, the IUCN Cat Specialist Group recognizes the tiger subspecies in mainland Asia as populations of P. t. tigris.[9]

CharacteristicsEdit

 
Illustration of two Caspian tigers.

PelageEdit

 
Skin of an Iranian tiger.
 
Comparative illustration of the stripe patterns on the tails of Caspian (left) and Siberian tigers (right).[5]

Photographs of skins of Caspian and Amur tigers indicate that the main background colour of the Caspian tiger's pelage varied and was generally brighter and more uniform than that of the Siberian tiger. The stripes were narrower, fuller and more closely set than those of tigers from Manchuria. The colour of its stripes were a mixture of brown or cinnamon shades. Pure black patterns were invariably found only on head, neck, the middle of the back and at the tip of the tail. Angular patterns at the base of the tail were less developed than those of Far Eastern populations. The contrast between the summer and winter coats was sharp, though not to the same extent as in Far Eastern populations. The winter coat was paler, with less distinct patterns. The summer coat had a similar density and hair length to that of the Bengal tiger, though its stripes were usually narrower, longer and closer set. It had the thickest fur amongst tigers, possibly due its occurrence in the temperate parts of Eurasia.[5][7][4]

SizeEdit

The Caspian tiger, together with its surviving relatives in the Far East and Indian subcontinent, and lion, ranked among the largest Felidae that ever existed.[7][5][10][11][12] The Caspian tiger had a less massive body than the Ussuri population of the Siberian tiger. Its average body length was around 3 metres (10 ft). Males weighed 170–240 kg (370–530 lb), whereas females weighed 85–135 kg (187–298 lb).[7] The maximum known weight was greater than 240 kg (530 lb). Maximum skull length in males was 297 to 365.8 mm (11.69 to 14.40 in), while that of females was 195.7 to 255.5 mm (7.70 to 10.06 in).[5] Its occiput was broader than of the Bengal tiger.[13]

Some individuals attained exceptional sizes. In 1954, a tiger was killed near the Sumbar River in Kopet-Dag whose stuffed skin was put on display in a museum in Ashgabat. Its body length was 2.25 m (7.4 ft), its skull had a condylobasal length of about 305 mm (12.0 in), and zygomatic width of 205 mm (8.1 in), its greatest skull length was 385 mm (15.2 in), which is considerably more than the other known maximum of 365.8 mm (14.40 in) for this population, and slightly exceeds those of most Siberian tigers.[5]

In Prishibinske, a tiger was killed in February 1899. Measurements after skinning revealed a body length of 270 cm (8.9 ft) between the pegs, plus a 90 cm (3.0 ft) long tail, giving it a total length of about 360 cm (11.8 ft). Measurements between the pegs of up to 2.95 m (9.7 ft) is known.[7] According to Satunin it was "a tiger of immense proportions" and "no smaller than the common Tuzemna horse." It had rather long fur.[5]

Phylogenetic relationship to the Siberian tigerEdit

At the start of the 21st century, researchers from the University of Oxford, the U.S. National Cancer Institute and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem collected tissue samples from 20 of 23 Caspian tiger specimens kept in museums across Eurasia. They sequenced at least one segment of five mitochondrial genes and found a low amount of variability of the mitochondrial DNA in Caspian tigers as compared to other tiger subspecies. They re-assessed the phylogenetic relationships of tiger subspecies and observed a remarkable similarity between Caspian and Siberian tigers indicating that the Siberian tiger is the genetically closest living relative of the Caspian tiger, which strongly implies a very recent common ancestry. Based on phylogeographic analysis they suggested that the ancestor of Caspian and Amur tigers colonized Central Asia via the GansuSilk Road region from eastern China, less than 10,000 years ago, and subsequently traversed eastward to establish the Siberian tiger population in the Russian Far East. The events of the Industrial Revolution may have been the critical factor in the reciprocal isolation of Caspian and Siberian tigers from what was likely a single contiguous population.[14]

A geographical variation study of tigers found that the Caspian tiger is indistinguishable from the other tiger subspecies of mainland Asia due to a significant overlap in skull size and shape.[15]

Distribution and habitatEdit

 
Shore of the Türkmenbaşy Gulf in the Caspian Sea
 
The Tigris River outside Mosul, Iraq

Historical records show that the distribution of the Caspian tiger in the region of the Caspian Sea was not continuous but patchy, and associated with watercourses, river basins, and lake edges.[5] In the 19th century, tigers occurred in:

Its former distribution can be approximated by examining the distribution of ungulates in the region.[22] Wild pigs were the numerically dominant ungulates occurring in forested habitats, along watercourses, in reed beds and in thickets of the Caspian and Aral Seas. Where watercourses penetrated deep into desert areas, suitable wild pig and tiger habitat was often linear, only a few kilometers wide at most. Red and roe deer occurred in forests around the Black Sea to the western side and around the southern side of the Caspian Sea in a narrow belt of forest cover. Roe deer occurred in forested areas south of Lake Balkash. Bactrian deer occurred in the narrow belt of forest habitat on the southern border of the Aral Sea, and southward along the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya rivers.[5]

ExtirpationEdit

 
Tiger killed in northern Iran, early 1940s

The demise of the Caspian tiger began with the Russian colonisation of Turkestan during the late 19th century.[23] Its extirpation was caused by several factors:

  • Tigers were killed by large parties of sportsmen and military personnel who also hunted tiger prey species such as wild pigs. The range of wild pigs underwent a rapid decline between the middle of the 19th century and the 1930s due to overhunting, natural disasters, and diseases such as swine fever and foot-and-mouth disease, which caused large and rapid die-offs.[5]
  • The extensive reedbeds of tiger habitat were increasingly converted to cropland for planting cotton and other crops that grew well in the rich silt along rivers.[23]
  • Tigers were already vulnerable due to the restricted nature of their distribution, having been confined to watercourses within the large expanses of desert environment.[22]

Until the early 20th century, the regular Russian army was used to clear predators from forests, around settlements, and potential agricultural lands. Until World War I, about 100 tigers were killed in the forests of Amu-Darya and Piandj Rivers each year. High incentives were paid for tiger skins up to 1929. The prey base of tigers, wild pigs and deer, were decimated by deforestation and subsistence hunting by the increasing human population along the rivers, supported by growing agricultural developments.[24] By 1910, cotton plants were estimated to occupy nearly one-fifth of Turkestan's arable land, with about one half located in the Fergana Valley.[25]

Last recordsEdit

In China, tigers disappeared from the Tarim River basin in Xinjiang in the 1920s.[3][26] From the Manasi River basin in the Tian Shan Range west of Ürümqi they reportedly disappeared in the 1960s.[5]

In Iraq, a tiger was killed near Mosul in 1887.[3][16] The last known tiger in Georgia was killed in 1922 near Tbilisi, after taking domestic livestock.[3][26] Its stuffed body was put on display in the Georgian National Museum.[27][28]

In Kazakhstan, the last Caspian tiger was recorded in 1948, in the environs of the Ili River, the last known stronghold in the region of Lake Balkhash.[5] In Turkmenistan, the last known tiger was killed in January 1954 in the Sumbar River valley in the Kopet-Dag Range.[29] The last record from the lower reaches of the Amu-Darya river was an unconfirmed observation in 1968 near Nukus in the Aral Sea area. By the early 1970s, tigers disappeared from the river's lower reaches and the Pyzandh Valley in the Turkmen-Uzbek-Afghan border region.[5]

In Golestan National Park, one of the last known Iranian tigers was shot in 1953. An individual was sighted in the Golestan area in 1958.[4]

Several tiger skins found in the early 1970s near Uludere indicated the presence of a tiger population in eastern Turkey.[30][31][17] Questionnaire surveys conducted in this region revealed that one to eight tigers were killed each year until the mid-1980s, and that tigers likely had survived in the region until the early 1990s. Due to lack of interest, in addition to security and safety reasons, no further field surveys were carried out in the area.[17] A pair of tigers was allegedly killed in the area of Selçuk in 1943.[32]

The Piandj River area between Afghanistan and Tajikistan was a stronghold of the Caspian tiger until the late 1960s. The latest sighting of a tiger in the Afghan-Tajik border area dates to 1998 in the Babatag Range.[24]

EcologyEdit

 
Mosaic of an elephant attacking a tiger, from Roman Syria, which occupied parts of what is now Anatolia and Mesopotamia.[33]

No information is available for home ranges of Caspian tigers. In search for prey, they possibly prowled widely and followed migratory ungulates from one pasture to another. Wild pigs and cervids probably formed their main prey base. In many regions of Central Asia, Bactrian deer and roe deer were important prey species, as well as Caucasian red deer, goitered gazelle in Iran; Eurasian golden jackals, jungle cats, locusts, and other small mammals in the lower Amu-Darya River area; saiga, wild horses, Persian onagers in Miankaleh peninsula; Turkmenian kulans, Mongolian wild asses, and mountain sheep in the Zhana-Darya and around the Aral Sea; Manchurian wapiti and moose in the area of Lake Baikal. They caught fish in flooded areas and irrigation channels. In winter, they frequently attacked dogs and livestock straying away from herds. They preferred drinking water from rivers, and drank from lakes in seasons when water was less brackish.[5]

DiseaseEdit

Two tigers in southwestern Tajikistan harbored 5–7 tapeworms (Taenia bubesei) in their small and large intestines.[5]

Sympatric carnivoresEdit

Parts of the tiger's range also hosted other large and small felid species, besides caniforms like the Syrian brown bear:[19]

Still extant species in the region include:

Conservation effortsEdit

 
Colour-enhanced photo of the captive Caspian tiger in the Berlin Zoo, 1899.

In 1938, the first protected area Tigrovaya Balka, "tiger former river channel", was established in Tajikistan. The name was given to this zapovednik after a tiger had attacked two Russian Army officers riding horseback along a dried-up river channel called balka. Tigrovaya Balka was apparently the last stronghold of Caspian tigers in the Soviet Union, and is situated in the lower reaches of Vakhsh River between the Piandj and Kofarnihon Rivers near the border of Afghanistan. A tiger was seen there in 1958.[45]

After 1947, tigers were legally protected in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.[24]

In Iran, Caspian tigers had been protected since 1957, with heavy fines for shooting. In the early 1970s, biologists from the Department of Environment searched several years for Caspian tigers in the uninhabited areas of Caspian forests, but did not find any evidence of their presence.[4]

Restoration projectsEdit

Stimulated by recent findings that the Siberian tiger (Amur population) is the closest relative of the Caspian tiger, albeit slightly bigger than it, discussions started as to whether the Amur tiger could be an appropriate subspecies for reintroduction into a safe place in Central Asia.[46] The Amu-Darya Delta was suggested as a potential site for such a project. A feasibility study was initiated to investigate if the area is suitable and if such an initiative would receive support from relevant decision makers. A viable tiger population of about 100 animals would require at least 5,000 km2 (1,900 sq mi) of large tracts of contiguous habitat with rich prey populations. Such habitat is not available at this stage and cannot be provided in the short term. The proposed region is therefore unsuitable for the reintroduction, at least at this stage.[24]

While the restoration of the Caspian tiger has stimulated discussions, the locations for the tiger have yet to become fully involved in the planning. But through preliminary ecological surveys it has been revealed that some small populated areas of Central Asia have preserved natural habitat suitable for tigers.[47]

Cultural significanceEdit

 
Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, using the tiger and Barbary lion.[3] Painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, commissioned by William Thompson Walters in 1863.
 
A tigress and cub featured in a 1997 stamp from Azerbaijan, South Caucasus.
 
The Sher-Dor Madrasah in Registan, Uzbekistan, Central Asia, 2006. 'Sher' or 'Shir' (Persian: شیر‎‎) can mean 'Lion' or 'Tiger'.[5][4][6][48]
 
Statues of a man and a tiger, on the way to Mount Akhun, North Caucasus, 2013.

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

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External linksEdit