First Genome Sequence Of Tiger Suggests Big Cats Truly Are Natural Born Killers

By Philip Ross on September 18, 2013 2:03 PM EDT

siberian tiger
Scientists have finally mapped the genome of a big cat, the Siberian tiger. (Photo: Creative Commons)

For the first time, scientists have sequenced a tiger genome, giving them a clearer picture of what exactly makes a big cat unique from its smaller felinae cousins. The project suggests that not only are big cats - that is, members of the genus Panthera which includes tigers, lions, jaguars and leopards - fierce predators, they're also genetically predisposed to kill things.

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In other words, everything about a big cat's physiology makes it capable of mauling your face off. How is this a novel discovery, you might ask? Until now, scientists have only mapped the genome of the domestic housecat, a much smaller version of the big cat descendant from African wildcats.

Researchers from the Personal Genomics Institute in South Korea sequenced the genome of the endangered Siberian tiger, as well as the white Bengal tiger, African lion, white African lion and the a snow leopard. They found that all the cats seemed to rely on a narrow set of 1,376 genes give them strong muscle fibers and the ability to digest protein.

"I take this to indicate that [big cats] have evolved to fill a very particular carnivorous niche in the environment that is predicated on the advantages in hunting these genes provide," Jong Bhak of South Korea's Personal Genomics Institute in Suwo told National Geographic. "Genetically all the cats are very close, so we need close genetic mapping to find the small differences that make them distinct."

All cats, big or small, are made for carnivorous, violent feasting. Domestic cats, for one, can hear sounds at frequencies too high for the human ear, have better senses of smell and can see in almost complete darkness. But it seems the big cats specifically evolved to be excellent killers. Its earliest common ancestor with other cat species roamed the earth some 11 million years ago, according to Red Orbit.

National Geographic reports that the Siberian tiger, an animal that can weigh as much as 660 pounds and reach ten feet in length, is the largest tiger subspecies. There are just 450 of them left in the wild. The genetic map of a big cat could aid wildlife conservation efforts, because the first step towards diversifying wildlife populations is to understand the genetic landscape of big cats.

The rest of the study can be read online in the latest issue of the journal Nature Communications.

Read more from iScience Times:

Sumatran Tiger Cubs: Two Cubs Born At National Zoo, A Rarity For The Critically Endangered Species

700,000-Year-Old Canadian Horse Fossil Genome Is Oldest DNA Ever Sequenced [REPORT]

Royal Bengal Tigers In Nepal: How Did Population Double In Just Four Years?

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