The skeleton and muscles of a tiger are designed for efficient movement to catch and kill prey. Tigers have relatively long legs, giving them a long step-length (the amount of ground covered with each step). Their stance, in which the feet remain elevated and only the toes touch the ground, gives extra length to each step. Step-length is also increased by the position of the shoulder blades on the sides of the body, rather than on the back (as in humans), so the shoulders “swing” with the legs, extending the stride.
Tigers have flexible spines. During a high-speed chase, the belly muscles tighten, making the spine arch like a bow. When the muscles relax, the cat has explosive power for the next step. A long, flexible tail acts like a rudder to improve balance.
Five soft pads on the bottom of tiger paws produce a distinctive paw print, or pug mark. The padding on the bottom of the paw enables tigers to move silently. To keep their long claws sharp, tigers retract their claws into the feet until they are needed. A springlike ligament extends the claws like a switchblade.
An adult tiger defends a large area from all other tigers of the same sex. A female’s territory must contain enough prey to support herself and her cubs. A male’s territory is typically larger than a female’s territory—in addition to containing enough prey, the male’s territory typically overlaps with those of one to seven females in order to have access to females with which to mate.
Except for a mother and her cubs, and the few days that males and females come together to mate, tigers generally live and hunt alone. Although they are solitary animals, tigers communicate with other tigers in their area through a variety of methods. Roaring, for instance, broadcasts the news of a tiger’s presence and warns other tigers to stay away. Tigers use scent marks by spraying urine, dropping feces, and rubbing scent glands on trees and other objects. Scent marks are often coupled with visual signposts, such as scratch marks on trees. These smells and signs are especially concentrated at territorial boundaries and they warn other tigers of the same sex to stay out of the territory or risk a fight.
Tigers rely on stealth to stalk their prey. They use cover such as trees, tall grass, or other vegetation to hide in while they stalk prey. Habitats where forest is interspersed with small clearings are ideal. In a typical hunt, a tiger slowly and silently stalks an animal until the tiger is about 10 m (about 30 ft) away. The tiger then lunges in a lightning-fast rush to close the gap, grabbing the animal in its forepaws and wrestling it to the ground. It finally kills the animal by sinking its teeth into the animal’s throat or neck.
After dragging the carcass to a secluded spot, the tiger eats. A tiger consumes 16 kg (35 lbs) of meat on an average night, and returns to the carcass nightly until the meat is gone, usually in two to three days. On average, a tiger must kill about once every eight days. A female with growing cubs to feed may kill every five to six days. Catching a meal is not easy even for such a superb predator: A tiger makes a successful kill only once in every 10 to 20 hunts.
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