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What is a Tigon? - Size, History & Facts

Instructor: Darren Grant

Darren has 27 years experience as a certified HS science teacher and college professor. He holds a M.S. in Science Ed. and B.S.Ed. in chemistry

What is a tigon? Are they some strange beast that descended from saber tooth tigers? In this lesson, we will explore the answer to that question, as well as where the name tigon originated. The answers may surprise you.

Nomenclature

Nomenclature is the science of naming things. To be able to talk about anything, we need to have a name for it that is recognizable and accepted. The way we give names to animals in the scientific world is based on the works of Carolus Linnaeus in the mid-1700s. He originally divided things into Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species based entirely on their physical characteristics, which he could observe with the technology available to him at the time. Genus and species are the smallest divisions in this system, and writing these two classification names in Latin is known as the binomial (two name) nomenclature. Naming the tigon and other animals like it poses a very real problem when attempting to use traditional nomenclature. You see, they don't fit the naming parameters exactly, and they pose somewhat of a problem. Linnaeus classified lions and tigers in the family Felis, and the genus Leo and Tigris respectively. Modern naming has bumped these names down to the Species level and inserted the Genus name of panthera as the genus name.

What is a Tigon?

The name tigon is a portmanteau name which is a blend of the two names, in this case, tiger and lion, into a new word with a blended meaning. This name is inserted at the species or subspecies level of binomial nomenclature for the cross between a male tiger panthera tigris and female lion panthera leo.

A tigon on display in the zoo
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The origin of the name seems to date back to the 1920s. As you can see, the tigon is a blend of the physical characteristics of the mother lion and the father tiger. Male Siberian tigers can weigh 400 - 600 lbs with a length of 8 - 11 ft., whereas the smaller Sumatran tiger weighs in at 170 - 350 lb. and a length of 6 - 8 ft. The African lioness ranges from 250 - 350 lbs. and are 4 - 6.5 ft. long. Historically, the Asiatic lion was known to be bigger than the African lions, at 300 - 450lb. and 6 - 9 ft. in length.

British officers hunted the largest lions as trophies while stationed in India in the 1800s. Selectively eliminating the larger Asiatic lions. This effectively reduced the size of lions left in the gene pool. In recent decades there has been growing concern that Asiatic lions may soon be extinct. Extinction is when a species has died off and is no longer known to exist. This happened to the Persian tiger tigris virgata in the mid-twentieth-century. It was hunted to extinction because nobody wanted a tiger in their back yard unless it was in a cage.

Picture of a now extinct Persian tiger
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The Asiatic lion's average size has fallen below the size of the African lion in recent decades and their numbers continue to dwindle, possibly toward extinction.

How Big are Tigons?

The size range of tigons is within the average size range of their parents. If the largest breed of tiger, the Siberian tiger, is the sire, the cubs tend to be much larger and may be too large for the mother lion to carry to term. Smaller Sumatran tiger males produce smaller cubs which are easier for a lioness to birth. Depending on the size of the father tiger and mother lion, they have the genetic potential to weigh between 200 and 500 lbs and be between 4 and 9 feet in length. Current tigon populations in captivity fall within the same size range of the lions and tigers that make up the parent breeds.

Female lions can become mothers of tigons
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