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What is a Liger? - Size, Reproduction & Facts

Instructor: Joanne Abramson

Joanne has taught middle school and high school science for more than ten years and has a master's degree in education.

Ligers and tigons and grolar bears, oh my! This lesson discusses animal hybrids in general and ligers in particular. Learn about the origins, characteristics, and cautions of this fascinating man-made animal.

Hybrid Animals

When you were a child, you probably drew pictures and made up stories about a variety of fanciful beasts. The body of a lizard, with the head of an elephant, wings of an eagle and tail of a zebra perhaps! Well, some people grew up and made that fanciful stage a reality.

People have been creating hybrid animals, the sexual offspring of two different species of animals, since ancient times. Breeders produce these new animals to perform special jobs (pack mules), purely by accident (Africanized 'killer' bees) and just for fun (Savannah cats). Since hybrid animals are the result of a cross between two separate species, they are often infertile (cannot produce offspring of their own) and prone to birth defects.

Savannah cats were first bred in the 1980s and recognized as an official cat breed in 2001. They are a cross between a wild serval and a house cat.
Image of a Savannah cat.

The Legendary Liger

A liger, the offspring of a male lion, Panthera leo, and a female tiger, Panthera tigris, is an example of a hybrid animal created just for fun. (The offspring of a female lion and a male tiger, by the way, is referred to as a 'tigon'.) The origins of the liger can be traced back to India, where the first cubs were believed to be born between the late 1700s and early 1800s.

The famous German animal trader Carl Hagenbeck bred at least two ligers in his zoo. This photograph was taken in 1904.
A photograph of two lions taken in 1904.

As you would imagine, in many ways ligers look and act just like a cross between a tiger and a lion. They have the typical sandy color of lions, with pale stripes and the white belly of a tiger. Male ligers often possess a shaggy mane. Ligers enjoy swimming, like tigers, and are social, like lions. Ligers have the ability to roar like a lion and also to chuff, which is to make a low, friendly growl-like sound that tigers use as a greeting.

Surprisingly, ligers grow to be much larger than either parent species, making them the largest known cat in the world. Ligers weigh 800-900 pounds (twice as much as lions or tigers) and are around 11 feet long and 5 feet tall. Even their heads are 2.5 times bigger than their parents'. Biologically, this is referred to as hybrid vigor, when the crossbred offspring outperforms the parents in a particular characteristic.

Two female ligers
Image of two, female ligers.

Hercules, the largest big cat in the world, is a liger weighing over 900 pounds. He stands 6 feet tall, is 11 feet long and could consume 100 pounds of meat per day! However, he is fed one meal daily of 30 pounds of meat and one gallon of water. Thank goodness Hercules has the mellow and laid-back character often used to describe ligers.

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