Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Some Tigers and Other Big Cats

Note to Visitors: This is a post about tigers and other big cats.  There is
an orange
Tigers and Cats Playlist, opposite.  We believe our science is solid, but what difference should that make anyway?  Should some of our conclusions seem dodgy, we ask that you remember that ours is an age of alternative facts.

One section notes how Ganges Delta foresters ward off tiger attacks from behind, by wearing face masks on the backs of their heads.  This seems a fruitful idea to us.  Todd, Cyril, and I plan to wear our backwards-facing masks for the next four years whenever we're out and about.

Bengal Tiger
There is something about tigers.
Lions are putative jungle kings –– or better, kings of the plains –– but they spend a lot of time catnapping all day.  Social animals, they hunt in packs, and once they've fed on kills they drowsily share war stories with their pride before dozing off.

Now tigers, well tigers are solitary and elusive, more likely to bam-pow their ways into our lives when we're not looking.  Their basic social unit is a mother and her children, but after two years the mother shoos her still-adolescent offspring out of the den.  Fathers, meanwhile, will have taken off long before that, following birth of the cubs.  Except for mating season and when females are carrying their young, the males are scarce. 

So for the most part tigers live unsocial lives.  You'll not find a group of tigers dozing in the shade; you'll seldom find a group of tigers, period. And whereas you've got a "pride" of lions, a "herd" of buffalo, a "troop" of baboons, the collective noun for tigers is an "ambush" or a "streak" –– as if tigers were motional processes more than static aggregates.

People who weigh in on the merits of lions vs. tigers think tigers are the real jungle kings, larger than lions and likely to win in a fight.  They are used to one-on-one brawling, are more agile, have faster paw-strikes, greater muscle density, and stronger bite force.

Opinions split when it comes to the intelligence of lions versus tigers. The solitary lifestyle of tigers and the sociality of lions inform these opinions. 

Some researchers think lions are smarter because intelligence often correlates with the challenges and necessary adaptations that come from living in social groups.  A University of Miami study supports this view (click link for video).  Researchers locked meat in a puzzle box, then exposed the box to different large carnivores tasked with opening the box.  The animals' finish times in order of fastest to slowest? Hyenas came in first, then lions, then leopards, and finally –– coming in dead last –– tigers.

Comparison between greatest 
length of skull and cranial volume
amongst leopard (left on the lower

line), and tiger (on the upper line).  
(Credit: University of Oxford)

Other researchers disagree with the social-intelligence premise.  They believe intelligence is better measured by brain volume than by results from a test.  A 2009 article in Science cites an Oxford University study which found that cranial capacity of tigers was sixteen per cent larger than that of lions, relative to their body sizes.  The unsocial tiger had a larger brain than the communal lion.  (See diagram, opposite.)

What to make of this?  To us it suggests that lions scored well on the puzzle-box test not because they're innately smarter than tigers but because they're good test-takers, accustomed to following orders.
Lions may simply be conformist joiners working off a script whereas tigers display a supple intellect.

We're not zoologists but we think tigers probably are the more savvy of the two large cats –– because it takes a creative leap by tigers to sidestep the state of play, to think outside the puzzle box and ignore the rules altogether, intentionally confounding the research of academicians.  Meaning: those puzzle-box tigers chose to fail the test so as to remain less scrutable and classifiable.

Ganges Delta Forest Workers
More evidence for tigers' intelligence is that they're sneaky.  They like to hunt at night and ambush prey from behind or the side.  They come by their moniker, an "ambush" of tigers, for a reason. Because of this stealth, workers in mangrove forests of the Ganges Delta began, in the 1980s, to wear masks on the backs of their heads –– which ruse effectively reduced tiger attacks.

This stealthy hunting style loosely resembles guerrilla tactics that Patriots used against the British redcoats at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, when the Patriots crept up on their enemy and fired at them from behind trees, walls, fences.  Related tactics had been earlier employed by Native Americans during colonial wars, notably the French and Indian Wars:

     The manner in which Great Lakes Indians fought provides the
     greatest contrast between Indian and European warfare.  Once
     an Indian war party of any size began an attack, each warrior
     generally fought on his own.  Unlike Europeans, who kept
     soldiers in tight ranks under the supervision of sergeants and
     officers, Indian men fought as individuals.  Like Europeans,
     Indian communities had definite goals for their war parties, but
     once combat started, Indian men sought to gain recognition      
     through personal bravery.  This usually involved killing an enemy
     enemy warrior, and in this fashion Indian men gained reputations
     as great warriors.  In this way, war was a much more personal
     activity for Great Lakes Indians than for Europeans, who called
     Indian tactics a "skulking way of war."  In reality, it was simply a
     different set of tactics.
     (Credit: Milwaukee Public Museum)

Surprise! (1891) (Later title: Tiger in a Tropical Storm)
Henri Rousseau (French)
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Performing Tigers at Ringling
Bros. and Barnum & Bailey 
Circus (Wikimedia Commons)
There are six surviving tiger subspecies out of an original eleven.  The Bengal tiger is the most numerous tiger subspecies and the Siberian tiger the largest.  Tigers are an endangered species and they face significant threats from hunting, poaching and habitat loss. 
Moreover, they've often encountered less lethal fates, such as execrable performance acts in circuses and Las Vegas shows.

Tiger Hug
Tigers' solitary nature is occasionly punctuated by documented episodes of companionship.  There are some noteworthy human-tiger bonds, for example. These unions are simple bonds of friendship and are not to be confused with examples of non-reproductive sexual behavior –– in which exigent circumstances prompt different species to seek any port in a storm.

Other atypical companionships involve intra-genus couplings, and these are sexually reproductive.  The genus panthera comprises five sister species: panthera tigris (tigers), panthera leo (lions), panthera onca (jaguars), panthera pardus (leopards), panthera uncia (snow leopards).  Among these species there are rare reproductive unions between male lions and female tigers (producing ligers), and unions between male tigers and female lions (producing tigons).

Then again, nature sometimes reveals pairings far stranger than ligers and tigons –– highly unnatural pairings.  So aberrant that we find ourselves torn between fascination and abhorrence.  In this edgy ambivalent spirit we showcase the following in our very own puzzle-box, highlighting it with an orange border but also wisely sequestering it within that border.  Best to be vigilant here, some things really ought to be walled in.

Tigger Ambushes Eeyore
As an antidote to such disturbing pairings, we'll turn now to our favorite big cat, Tigger, seen here in E.H. Shepard's illustration from A.A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner (1928).  Those who have read Milne will recall that Tigger bounces and runs round and round irrepressibly in the Hundred Acre Wood, so much so that he occasionally courts trouble (getting stuck in a tree, knocking Eeyore into the river).  He is also jauntily confident, erring delightfully on the side of imaginative possibility –– assuring Roo that he can do everything and do it well: fly, jump, swim, climb trees. 

We appreciate Tigger’s exuberance.  True, there are times when he might be more careful, might harness his energies, be more socially appropriate and regimented –– more like a lion.  Still, too much caution and he’d no longer be Tigger.  He’d be a tamed cat, not the refreshing counterpart to the priggishly conventional and starchy Rabbit.

When we look at this image of Tigger we are gladdened.  We get a warm feeling; it traces to the stillness of remembered bedtimes and to memories of reading to children and being read to as children; it also contains a contrary sense of devil-may-care giddiness.  Since Tigger is beloved of many, we assume he sparks compelling Hundred Acre Wood memories in others as well, holding their attention and prompting reverie.  A most excellent cat, he deserves inclusion within genus panthera as a separate species, a sixth species-sister within the standard panthera canon.

Tigger's canonization would be no whimsical honorific.  He and other like-spirited Tiggers have a job to do, which is to be themselves, only more so –– to unrestrainedly bounce as never before.  Because right now, in these times, uncomprehending, leaden-eyed fat cats roam the land, the new jungle kings.  It's hard to meet them head on and reason with them; they're deeply programmed and have lockstep, granitic dispositions.  Clever cats in their way, and probably good test takers, these fat cats are surprisingly incurious, with no questing, imaginative intelligence –– their prime directive being to guard territory and preserve their core fat-cat identity.  Other cats, already in or seeking to enter the jungle, are seen by them as interlopers that threaten to sap strength, adulterate identity.

We're not suggesting that Tiggers should ambush the fat cats, knocking them into the river from hidey-holes behind trees, walls, and fences. No, we are hoping instead that the rest of the jungle will applaud the erratic, the off-center, the playful, and will remember that that riot of potentialities is what's most absorbing and colorful about their jungle home.  We further hope that in time, at the jungle ballot box, the rest of the jungle will vote out the monotonals.

Jungle (2013)
Pierre Maxo (Haitian)

(Credit: Galerie Macondo)

We'll close with this useful quote from John Lennon:

     When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing 
     the system's game.  The establishment will irritate you –– pull your 
     beard, flick your face –– to make you fight.  Because once they've
     got you violent, then they know how to handle you.  The only thing 
     they don't know how to handle is non-violence and humor.
     (Credit: The Huffington Post, 1/4/2017)


Little Bear said...

Poor starchy Rabbit, haha. Great post dad! Enjoying the playlist as well; it's good for channeling the inner tigger...

Kit said...

Thank you, Colin. Just tried to put a link to an mp3 of a purring cat in this comment box ... and failed. But imagine a satisfied purring sound.

WordsPoeticallyWorth said...

Greetings from the UK. I enjoyed reading.

Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.

Comments are appreciated: