by Greg Mayer
Until Jerry settles back in there’ll be a bit of overlap in our posting, so I’m providing this Caturday’s felid. Actually it’s two felids: the lion and the tiger (both of these links come from a wonderful page maintained by Virginia Hayssen of Smith College), both photographed today at the Racine Zoo in Wisconsin.
The tiger, unfortunately, sat back out of useful range of the camera I had with me, so I had to settle for this.
In captivity hybrids between lions and tigers, called ligers (male lion X tigress) and tigons (male tiger X lioness), can be produced, which are healthy and vigorous. As Jerry explains in chapter 7 of WEIT, species are defined by their reproductive relationships: members of the same species will interbreed with one another, while members of different species are kept from successfully reproducing by one or more reproductive isolating barriers. Why, then, do we consider lions and tigers different species?
Most people think of lions as being from eastern and southern Africa, but within historic times lions ranged across north Africa and southeastern Europe through southwest Asia to northern India. One population of Asiatic lions still survives, in the Gir Forest, closely protected by the Indian government.
Tigers were widespread in Asia, from the Caucasus to Siberia in the north and Java and Bali in the south. Until man began to decimate them, lions and tigers broadly overlapped in southern Asia, but remained distinct, without interbreeding. Thus, in nature, lions and tigers did not interbreed. And the full definition of a species, given by Ernst Mayr in 1940, is that species are groups of actually or potentially interbreeding populations in nature, reproductively isolated from other such groups.