So much misinformation, where to start ? Here are the 10 most common myths circulating about White Tigers, with the reasons why they are indeed myth not truth. This is only a brief look at the issues – see the FACTS tab above for the serious details (a work in progress !).
Myth #1: “White Tigers never occurred in the wild, they are a man-made breed”.
History debunks this one easily. There are literally dozens of reputable records of white Bengal tigers in the wilds of India over the last 200 years – most were shot for trophies, so there was a skin to prove it. A very few were captured alive, and a few were even photographed. We have records from the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London; from the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society; writings from prominent naturalists and zoologists of the times. There are even ancient records going back 400 years and more. The last-known wild white tiger was shot in 1958.
Myth #2: “The ONLY way to produce White Tigers is by continual inbreeding, mother to son, brother to sister etc.”.
The science of genetics proves this myth false. The white coat is not caused by inbreeding, but by normal genetic inheritance from the parents. The gene for white coat follows a simple Mendelian recessive inheritance pattern. This means that you can outbreed them to unrelated orange tigers, creating a diverse gene-pool of orange tigers that are white-gene-carriers. Mating 2 carriers, or a carrier with a white tiger, can produce healthy white cubs without any inbreeding at all. This is quite natural, and probably how it occurred in the wild.
Myth #3: “White Tigers have no conservation value”.
Science differs again. Over the last few years, geneticists have been busy testing DNA samples of wild tigers, captive tigers, and long-dead tigers (from skin and skull samples). They’ve come up with some VERY interesting findings, like:
- Tigers in the wild have lost 93% of their genetic diversity.
- Captive tigers hold genetic diversity that no longer exists in the wild.
- White Tigers (!) hold DNA variations that no longer exist in the wild.
We all know (don’t we?) that genetic variation is key to species survival, which makes every bit of variation left to the tiger extremely important to conserve – both in the wild AND captivity.
(There is another subtle myth embedded in this one – that conservation is the only thing that matters. More about that another day!)
Myth #4: “White Tigers cannot survive in the wild because they have no camouflage”.
Well this seems to makes sense – or does it ? Only superficially. How does an orange Amur tiger survive in the snowy whiteness of its natural winter habitat ?
The historical evidence from #1 above tells us that White Tigers did indeed survive – and thrive – in the wild. Many of those shot were adult animals described as “in the prime of their life”, and some were females with cubs. There was known to be a “regular breed” of White Tigers living and breeding in Central India.
Camouflage is not just about color. Most white tigers still have stripes which break up the body appearance. Many prey animals do not see in color. The ability to move silently and to anticipate the behavior of prey is not affected by coat color. Tigers do not only live in deep dark jungle, they also inhabit drier more open areas, where the undergrowth is bleached pale in Summer; pale rocky riverbanks and mountains; and they love to use roads and tracks to travel by. They are masters of the hunt, and very adaptable.
Myth #5: “ALL White Tigers are In-bred”.
This is a rather sweeping allegation to make – and never backed up with proof. Perhaps this assumption is a relic from the 1970’s, or perhaps it’s a (false) conclusion drawn from Myth #2.
While I will not make the claim that the opposite is true – all the time, everywhere – there is scientific proof that not all white tigers are inbred at all. This comes from a genetic study published in 2013 that found the level of heterozygosity in white tigers to be comparable to that of orange tigers – and concluded that the white tigers studied had indeed been outbred to unrelated orange tigers as described in #2 above.
Myth #6: “All White Tigers are not pure-bred”.
Another sweeping statement that falls down under closer scrutiny. White Tigers in India are pure-bred Bengal Tigers – myth #6 ignores this completely. In USA, White Tigers are assumed to be Bengal/Amur mixes – but there is no definitive proof that this is so for all. In fact, those busy genetic researchers have recently found that some USA captive tigers assumed to be cross-breeds are actually pure-bred ! Whether this applies to White Tigers or not remains to be investigated (or published).
There is another problem with this myth – it implies that not being pure-bred is a terrible no-no. That is a matter of debate, experts hold differing opinions, with some recognizing that the mainland tiger division into sub-species is a recent event, caused by human-induced segregation of a previously continuous and clinally varied population. Others state that preserving the “pure” subspecies may be a luxury the tiger cannot afford, and it may be necessary to cross-breed for the long-term survival of the tiger.
Myth #7: “White Tigers are SO recessive that breeding 2 White Tigers produces many excess orange cubs which are then destroyed“.This is a 2-pronged myth, both parts resulting from a lack of understanding of the genetics involved. The word “recessive”, when used in everyday conversation, implies something backwards or defective – as in an economic recession. However, the term as used in the science of genetics means something quite different – it is the opposite of “dominant”. When a recessive gene is paired with a dominant gene, the dominant trait will mask the recessive. Recessive genes can be either good, bad, or indifferent – they are not inherently faulty. It is this specialized genetic meaning of the word recessive that applies to White Tigers, not the more general meaning from everyday conversation.
Basic Mendelian genetics debunks myth #7. Two White Tigers bred together can only produce white cubs, because they do not possess the orange gene that is required to make orange cubs.
Furthermore, when orange cubs are produced from outcrossing, these cubs are valuable to White Tiger breeders because they carry the white gene – they are not excess !
Myth #8: “White Tigers are mutant freaks”.
No. A white cub is not produced by spontaneous mutation – it is produced by natural genetic inheritance from the parents (check back to #2).
The white gene is thought to have been caused by gene mutation at some time in the past – 100’s of years ago, or 1000’s or…. we don’t know when. Mutation is normal and necessary for evolution and genetic diversity. The gene that produces white coat in tigers has recently been identified (2013), and it is the same one that causes white skin in humans, white chickens, etc.
Myth #9: “The white gene causes defects and low survival rate – 80% of white cubs die“.
Where on earth did that “statistic” come from ? There is no data from the last 20-30 years to corroborate it. My best guess is that it is harking back to the 1970’s when zoos were inbreeding their tigers and finding out the hard way that that wasn’t going to work long-term. The important point is that it was the inbreeding causing the problems back then, not the white gene itself, and as we’ve seen it is not necessary to inbreed (and should not be done!) The same scientific research that identified the white gene in 2013 also concluded that it affected only the color, and did not cause any defects.
Myth #10: “White Tigers are not a separate species or subspecies and therefore not endangered”.
This is still a grey area, but it is generally accepted that it is not a separate sub/species, but part of the natural variation of the Bengal tiger subspecies. This is actually beneficial to the White Tiger, as it means that you do not have to breed White Tiger to White Tiger, but can outbreed to other orange Bengal tigers. This means a much more diverse gene-pool available for healthy breeding.
The tiger as a species is endangered, with only a fraction of its genetic diversity left, so the White Tiger is an important part of genetic variation of the Panthera tigris species.