The Man Made Cat
Do you remember going to the zoo when you were younger and being so mesmerized by white tigers? They may have stood out to you because they seemed so different than the regular orange colored tiger. Maybe you didn’t see them at the zoo at all because they weren’t as common before. White tigers are actually regular Bengal tigers that express a recessive mutant gene that gives them their rare color.
In order to understand the meaning behind the white tigers color, you need to know some basic genetics. We are made of genes, which are sections in our DNA that determine a specific characteristic. Everyone typically has two copies of the same gene. You get one copy from your mother and one copy from your father. You, however, will only express one version of that gene. Which gene you express sometimes depends on if the gene is dominant or recessive. Dominant genes typically mask recessive genes. For example, if both of your parents gave you recessive genes for blonde hair, you would have blonde hair. But if you have a dominant gene for black hair from your mother, but a recessive gene for blonde hair from your father, you would have black hair. At the same time, you would still be a carrier for blond hair and if you married someone with the same genotype, your child could have blonde hair. It is however, less likely. In fact, your child would have a 25% chance of having blonde hair.
This is the same case for Bengal tigers. To them, orange fur is the equivalent to black hair, and white fur is the equivalent to blonde hair. So when you see a white tiger, you are actually witnessing the product of two recessive genes being expressed. This may be pretty to see, but the expression of recessive genes is, as already stated, quite rare. There is, however, a much larger likelihood of having a white tiger if both parents were uncommonly white to begin with.
In order for zoos to get white tigers, they have to breed other white tigers. But because they are so rare and almost never found in the wild (it is harder for them to camouflage and therefore easier to be spotted by predators and their prey), they are more often than not the product of inbreeding. This means that white tigers are bred from within a family. This is because there are so few of them and it is easiest to keep the recessive white gene prominent by keeping breeding in the family. In other words, to make more white tigers, existing white tigers are bred with their mothers, brothers, sisters, cousins, etc.
What many people do not know is that white tigers, which are popular among U.S., Asian, and European zoos, all came from the breeding of a single white tiger imported from India (likely with a normal tiger carrying the recessive white gene). Inbreeding from such a small pool, even though it produces beautiful aesthetics, is unhealthy. Individuals resulting from inbreeding tend to be weaker and suffer from abnormalities. One of the main causes of this is there are higher chances of offspring inheriting other detrimental recessive genes, like those that code for disease or other physical weaknesses. White tigers commonly suffer from decreased intelligence, smaller skulls, and crossed eyes, and weakened immune systems as a result of inbreeding. Approximately 80% of these unhealthy tiger cubs do not make it past infancy. Those that do and suffer physical deformities aren’t usually displayed.
So now you know, it takes a lot of work to get those beautiful white tigers you see at the zoo. When you see them, appreciate their beauty, but also remember how pain and sacrifice it must have taken to get those recessive genes to show. White tigers are truly nothing natural. They are the product of years of interbreeding. They are, essentially, man-made.