Study Suggests There are Only Two Subspecies of Tigers

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Tigers should be reclassified from nine subspecies to just two in order to improve their conservation, advises a new study. Tiger numbers have dramatically fallen over the last century, which has spurred conservationists into action. However, some are critical of the study’s conclusion and question whether it can have a positive impact.

Things are pretty bleak for tigers as there are now fewer than 4,000 tigers across the Asian continent, down from about 100,000 a century ago. These tigers are currently classified into nine subspecies: Amur, Balinese, Bengal, Caspian, Indochinese, Javan, Malayan, South Chinese, and Sumatran. The paper suggests that they should only be classified into two: the Sunda tiger and the continental tiger.

The study, published in Science Advances, analyzed the differences between the currently recognized subspecies by comparing their skull measurement, the coloration and stripe patterns of their furs, their habitat and "second genome," or mitochondrial DNA.

“A classification into too many subspecies – with weak or even no scientific support – reduces the scope of action for breeding and rehabilitation programs,” lead author Andreas Wilting told Discovery News. “For example, tiger populations in South China and Indochina have been reduced to such low numbers that, if each continues to be classified as separate subspecies, they would likely face extinction.”

The study strengthened the idea that tigers aren’t very diverse, reinforcing the theory that a super-eruption that took place 70,000 years ago almost wiped out the tigers across large parts of Asia, leaving one small population to survive.

Researchers hope that combining the nine subspecies into two will “make conservation easier.” Volker Homes from the Worldwide Fund for Nature in Germany, told Science Magazine, that the reclassification could bolster the number of particular endangered subspecies, such as the South Chinese tigers. The reclassification can also make thousands of tigers born of various subspecies good candidates for breeding.

Some conservations point out that it’s the uniqueness of tigers that makes certain countries more eager to protect them. Homes explains that “there is a danger that some countries don’t feel as responsible for protecting the tiger anymore, if it is not ‘their’ unique tiger.” 

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