As you probably already know, tigers are apex predators and, without a doubt, excellent hunters!
So, what exactly do they eat, how do they catch prey, and why are these details important?
Considering a tiger’s top place in the food chain of the ecosystem it’s part of, its role in maintaining the balance of the respective ecosystem is undeniable.
Since tiger habitats have been increasingly destroyed in recent years and, therefore, prey isn’t as abundant, tigers started expanding their range, feeding on prey they don’t typically eat, and even attacking humans.
Understanding the Tiger Diet
Tigers are carnivores that prefer to hunt ungulates. However, considering their size, strength, and hunting skills, their diet isn’t restricted to ungulates.
If the opportunity presents itself, tigers will feed on a myriad of other animals.
Although, they usually choose prey weighing between 60 and 250 kilograms (132-551 pounds), they’ll sometimes go for smaller prey, such as monkeys or peafowl.
Three things influence a tiger’s diet the most: geographic distribution, size of prey, and whether or not circumstances allow for ambushing prey.
The geographic distribution and the size affect their preferences.
For example, Bengal tigers are known to primarily hunt prey weighing at least 176 kilograms (388 pounds), like Indian bison, sambar deer, water buffaloes, nilgai antelopes, and gnu goats.
Considering that these tigers have a head-to-tail length of 2.6–3.2 meters (8.5–10.5 feet) and a weight of up to 260 kilograms (573 pounds), it is unsurprising they go for larger prey.
Siberian tigers go for smaller prey, like the Manchurian wapiti, long-tailed goral, Siberian roe deer, and sika deer, as they are slightly smaller than Bengal tigers.
Of importance here is also the sex of the animal.
Since females are much smaller than males, they’ll go for smaller prey.
Apart from geographic distribution and size, circumstances also matter a lot.
Tigers do not chase down prey because they cannot run fast for long distances.
So, even if they invest time in stalking prey, these big cats abandon the hunting if the prey senses them and runs away.
The type of prey tigers choose also depends on the prey’s activity patterns.
Carnivorous Nature of Tigers
Tigers are the apex predators of their ecosystems and, therefore, play a significant ecological role by maintaining the balance of the habitat’s food chain.
Since they primarily feed on ungulates, tigers also contribute to keeping vegetation growth at healthy levels.
If it hadn’t been for them, the herbivorous population would have exploded, and they would have long destroyed their habitats.
Consequently, their range would have extended and eventually reached human settlements.
Besides this, since they sometimes feed on carrion, tigers help prevent the spread of various diseases.
Tigers are also known to hunt other predators, such as leopards, bears, and snakes, so they contribute to keeping their populations steady, too.
However, these enormous cats weren’t always that large and strong, and it remains unknown whether their ancestors were also apex predators in their habitats.
Studies show that an increase in size is an important aspect of their evolution, which is probably linked to the adaptive radiations of cervids and bovids that occurred during the Pleistocene.
The tiger lineage can be traced back to Panthera zdanskyi, which probably lived in the Early Pleistocene.
Fossil evidence shows that P. zdanskyi was the size of a modern female tiger, indicating that modern tigers have indeed evolved to be larger than their ancestors.
Exploring the Tiger’s Prey
Tigers feed primarily on ungulates, among which are the following:
- Sambar deer
- Manchurian wapiti
- Water buffalo
- Indian hog deer
- Indian muntjac
- Siberian musk deer
- Long-tailed goral
- Siberia roe deer
- Sika deer
- Greater mouse-deer
- Lesser mouse-deer
Studies on the gut contents of Bengal tigers have shown that 44.8% of their diet consists of gaurs, also known as Indian bison.
The rest consisted of sambar deer, wild pig, and chital remains.
The fecal contents of Siberian tigers showed that they primarily fed on wild boar, sika deer, and roe deer.
The most curious thing about these results is that Siberian tigers, for instance, have a lower spatial overlap with wild boar than with sika deer.
This indicates that although sika deer are abundant in their ecosystem and ungulates are the preferred prey, Siberian tigers choose availability rather than preferences.
More precisely, the activity patterns of wild boars are more similar to those of tigers, compared to the daily routine of sika deer.
Therefore, tigers choose to catch wild boars because it’s easier, even though it’s not the preferred prey.
Another study confirmed that tigers do not like hunting in areas where prey is abundant, which may also influence their dietary choices.
Besides large prey, tigers are known to hunt monkeys, peafowl, hares, and porcupines.
They have even been spotted killing crocodiles, leopards, bears, and young elephants and rhinos.
The Sumatran tiger preys on the great argus, the pig-tailed macaque, and the Malayan tapir, whereas the Malayan tiger has been observed preying on sun bears.
Analysis of Tiger Feeding Behaviors
Tigers are generally solitary creatures, so they usually hunt alone and do so mostly during the night.
Since their eyesight and sense of hearing are well-developed, they serve as primary means to find prey.
These felids aren’t very good runners, so they primarily rely on ambush techniques to catch prey.
Although tigers can reach speeds of up to 65 km/h (40.4 mph) in short bursts, they prefer not to put in the effort.
So, if the prey spots them and runs away, tigers usually drop the hunting altogether and start looking for something else to eat.
This is why their hunting success depends so much on their camouflaging and stalking abilities.
To catch prey easily, tigers must be at most 10 meters (33 feet) away, although a perfect catch is done from roughly 5 meters (16.4 feet) away.
But how exactly do they kill other animals? Do they fight with the prey? Not really. If there’s a possibility that the catch implies a fight, tigers will usually flee the spot – not worth the effort.
If they feel that the circumstances are in their favor, tigers ambush prey, hold it with their strong forelimbs, while delivering a bite to the throat, crushing the trachea.
They keep their teeth in the flesh until the prey suffocates. This method is used on large prey.
Smaller animals, on the other hand, such as monkeys, are killed through bites on the nape, which are aimed at breaking the prey’s spinal cord or severing the jugular vein.
A captive tiger was even observed killing a captive lion simply by hitting it with its paw and severing its jugular vein!
Although tigers are considered highly efficient hunters (they’re called apex predators for a reason, after all!), successful kills are quite rare.
Studies on Bengal tigers have shown that only one out of twelve attempts to catch prey is successful.
Once they subdue and kill prey, tigers usually move it into cover before feeding on it.
This is probably linked to the fact that they spend much time eating, consuming up to 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of meat in one night.
Remaining in the open isn’t too safe, as others may attempt to steal the kill. Sometimes, they cover the carcass with leaves or dirt, leave it, and then return to feed again.
Did you know that tigers are also excellent swimmers and may occasionally eat fish?
Furthermore, if prey is scarce, tigers may steal the kill of other predators, meaning they have evolved so intelligent as to develop various techniques that would allow them to fight other predators or fool them into surrendering their kill.
However, this happens rarely, as tigers are known to avoid conflict if possible.
Unique Diet Variations in Tigers
Check out the details below to learn the preferred prey of each tiger population:
- Studies have shown that Bengal tigers feed primarily on gaurs, sambar deer, wild pigs, and spotted deer. Occasionally, they go for porcupines, peafowl, hares, and snakes.
- Siberian tigers feed mostly on elk, deer, wild boars, bears, and lynxes. If opportunity presents itself, they will eat pikas, rabbits, and salmon. Here’s a fun fact! Did you know that Siberian tigers can recognize native prey instinctually?
- South China tigers feed on large ungulates and wild boars. Sometimes, they hunt hog deer, muntjacs, and other smaller animals.
- Indochinese tigers hunt bantengs (a Southeast Asian cattle species), sambar deer, wild boars, and gaurs. They may also stalk and ambush pangolins (scaly anteaters) and serows (goat-like mammals).
- Malayan tigers usually hunt sambar deer, wild boars, and Bornean bearded pigs. Occasional prey include sun bears, rhino calves, and serows. In recent years, Malayan tiger attacks on livestock have increased. On the other hand, these tigers are doing people a favor, as their presence reduces the number of wild boars significantly, which are known to cause severe damage to croplands.
- Sumatran tigers are known to hunt great argus pheasants, pig-tailed macaques, Malayan tapirs, Indonesian wild boars, porcupines, sambar deer, and Indian muntjacs.
Specialists advise that one tiger has to kill approximately 50-60 large animals yearly.
If there aren’t enough, the predators turn to smaller prey, which is usually not considered optimal prey and does not sustain their health and reproduction as large prey does.
That is why their population is highly dependent on that of ungulates.
In turn, both ungulates and tigers depend on their habitats, which, in recent years, have been severely destroyed.
Consequently, this prompted tigers to attack livestock and humans. In India, for example, 320 people were killed by tigers within six years, from 2014 until 2020.
Unveiling Tiger-Fish Interactions
Although tigers do not specialize in catching fish, they may occasionally eat some, especially if other food sources are scarce.
For example, the tigers in Sundarbans can swim incredibly fast, reaching speeds of 13 km/h (8 mph), so fish and crabs are part of their diet.
Nonetheless, studies show that fish, crabs, and birds constitute only 5–9% of their diet.
When hunting fish, these cats rely on the same ambushing technique, and, depending on the fish’s size, they either bite or hit them with their paw.
Even if tigers do not choose to feed on fish while taking a bath, they’ve been observed getting slightly annoyed at the fish swimming around them!
Furthermore, water sources play a significant role in their day-to-day activities. During the summer, for instance, tigers often remain in the water to cool down.
Conservation Implications of Tiger Diets
The conservation efforts oriented toward the global tiger population are linked primarily to habitat loss.
This, in turn, is associated with the loss of native prey not only due to habitat loss and fragmentation but also due to poaching.
Although tigers can definitely catch anything they set their eyes on, scientists confirm that they need ungulate prey to be able to grow and reproduce healthily.
Lack of ungulate prey causes tigers to intrude on human territories and attack livestock and people.
This is most common in regions where tigers have nothing to eat and evolve to see humans as prey, which is unnatural otherwise.
Historically, most attacks associated with habitat loss occurred in the Sundarbans, where 129 people died over only two years (1969–1971).
Human intrusion on tiger territories is quite common as well, as people often go fishing or hunting in respective areas. In such situations, attacks are usually provoked.
Considering that tigers are usually avoidant animals, this isn’t surprising.
Sometimes, people stumble upon them by accident, and consequently, these large cats are taken by surprise, feel threatened, and show aggression toward the intruder.
Studying a tiger’s diet in the wild is an important step toward understanding these cats’ role in their ecosystems.
These details also provide us with essential insights into how a tiger’s dietary preferences affect other creatures’ populations and how dependent they are on each other.
This is the first step toward designing efficient strategies for conservation efforts that are directed toward the feeding needs of tigers. Other animals in the food chain should be considered as well.
Needless to say, an improvement in habitat fragmentation and native prey loss can significantly reduce the number of attacks on humans.
Tigers are on the verge of extinction. Raising awareness is among the best things we can do to help them!