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Year of the Tiger

February 12, 2010

Rheanna Sand

Science in Seconds Blog by Rheanna Sand

On Sunday, the Chinese calendar moves from the year of the Ox into the year of the Tiger, meaning both a celebration of, and a threat to this majestic big cat species.

First for some good news: in Sumatra, strategically placed video cameras have captured the first film evidence of the wild Sumatran tiger. A mother and two, year-old cubs can be seen on the tape sniffing the camera as they curiously walk by.

Another recent finding reported in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution looked at the ancestral relationships between the five major big cats: jaguars, leopards, snow leopards, lions and tigers. It was known that these five groups have been evolving separately from little cats for a long time, but it was not known what the genetic relationships were within the big cats.

As it turns out, the tiger and snow leopard are sister species, meaning they split off as a separate group early on. The other three, lions, jaguars, and leopards, have been evolving separately as a group as well.

What this means is the tiger is more ancient and unique than we thought. Which is kind of a shame…considering the already devastating thirst in Asian countries for tiger body parts. Skins are sold as luxury items for homes or clothing. Teeth are revered as jewellery, and tiger penises are dried and ground up for men to take, so they can be more virile.

But personally, I can't think of anything more unluxurious, or an act more ugly, or more impotent than poaching or farming these awesome creatures. Let's hope celebrating the year of the tiger can shed some light on this problem rather than exacerbating it.

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