Lions, Tigers and … Ligers? Oh My!

The liger is a hybrid cross between a lion (Panthera leo) and a tiger (Panthera tigris). This beautiful liger lives at the Novosibirsk Zoo in Novosibirsk, Russia. Wikimedia Commons

If you've ever seen the cult classic movie "Napolean Dynamite," you probably remember the scene where the star of the movie doodles a picture of a liger. When his co-star asks what a liger is, he replies: "It's pretty much my favorite animal. It's like a lion and a tiger mixed, bred for its skills and magic."

While these mystical animals are somewhat akin to a unicorn or mermaid — especially since there are less than 100 reported to exist in the world — they actually a real-life mashup between a male lion (Panthera leo) and a female tiger (Panthera tigris). This means ligers have parents of different species, but the same genus (Panthera).


So What Does a Liger Look Like?

They are large and muscly, with broad heads and dark tawny fur. Male ligers have a mane like a male lion (but usually shorter), and ligers often have faint tiger stripes inherited from their mother. Ligers are fond of swimming just like tigers (lions don't like the water), and also are quite sociable like lions.

Delving further into these animals reveals that they typically grow much larger than either parent species. In fact, the liger is the largest known cat in the world, with male ligers said to reach a length of 10 to 12 feet (3 to 3.65 meters), which makes them slightly larger than even large male lions or tigers in length.


Ligers also weigh considerably more than a tiger or lion. Case in point: Guinness World Records recognized an adult male liger named Hercules at the Myrtle Beach Safari wildlife reserve in South Carolina as the largest living cat on Earth in 2013. He weighed a total of 922 pounds (418 kilograms), measured 131 inches (332 centimeters) and stood at 49 inches (124 centimeters) at the shoulder.

Ligers are fast as well — having been clocked running at speeds of up to 50 mph (80 kph) — and they have relatively long lives. For example, a female liger named Shasta born in 1948 at the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, Utah, lived to the ripe old age of 24.


When Did Ligers First Come to Be, And How Many Are There Now?

Lion-tiger hybrids actually surfaced around the late 18th and early 19th centuries in India, and they are depicted in a few paintings and engravings of that time. Two liger cubs born in 1837 were exhibited to King William IV and his successor Queen Victoria. German wild-animal trader and circus owner Carl Hagenbeck had at least two ligers born in his zoo, Hagenbeck's Tierpark in Hamburg, in May 1897.

In 1935, four ligers from two litters were reared in the Zoological Gardens of Bloemfontein, South Africa and Shasta (the first American liger) was born at the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City in 1948 and later died in 1972.


Although the exact number of ligers in existence worldwide is unknown, there are believed to be less than 100. The U.S. is said to hold the largest number of ligers at around 30, followed by China with maybe 20, and South Korea, Germany, Russia and South Africa each having a few. Ligers don't occur in the wild — tigers are mostly found in Asia and lions in Africa. The two species don't interact in the wild, so ligers exist only in zoos, sanctuaries and with private owners.

Why Is There a Swirl of Controversy Surrounding the Liger?

According to Susan Bass of Tampa-based Big Cat Rescue — whose mission is to provide the best home they can for the cats in their care, end abuse of big cats in captivity and prevent extinction of big cats in the wild — interspecies breeding is not something that happens in the wild, because wild lions and tigers do not exist for the most part in the same areas of the world (except in India's Gir National Forest).

"It is done only in captivity by disreputable breeders to produce a freak, unnatural animal that naive people will pay to see because they don't know the cruelty behind the breeding," she says. "These cats suffer from many birth defects, and usually die young. Because ligers usually are larger than either parent, it also puts the tigress at great risk in carrying the young and may require cesarean section deliveries or kill her in the process."


While there definitely is a social idea that somehow ligers just aren't right, many wildlife preservationists and zoos that crossbreed these animals in captivity insist that ligers are full of energy; live a long life; aren't prone to disease; and that their large size doesn't put pressure on their bodies, as their bodies are made to take that pressure.

That ligers are sterile seems to be another myth. Ligers can reproduce with either lions or tigers, while female ligers reproduce much easier than male ligers. That being said, the potential for a liger to exist is totally a realistic thing given that there were 100,000 lions and 100,000 tigers that had some chance meetings. Their habitats overlap every bit as much as polar bears and grizzlies to make a "polarizzlie," and there are polar bear grizzly hybrids that have been shot in the wild that have been shown to be full-sized living adults.