DNA Study Yields New Subspecies of Tiger

Scientists announced late Monday the apparent discovery of a new tiger species. No new tigers were found. Rather, a DNA analysis found one subspecies ought to be considered as two.

The finding could help researchers who work to protect the endangered animals.

In 1900, some 100,000 wild tigers lived throughout much of Asia, from India in the west to Sumatra and Indonesia in the south to Siberia in the east, scientists say. Today there are fewer than 7,000.

Of eight traditionally classified subspecies of Panthera tigris, three have gone extinct since the 1940s.

Strategies to slow the loss of tiger populations are tailored to each subspecies. But these designations, based on geographic range and traits such as body size, coat color, and striping patterns, may be flawed, researchers say.

The new study analyzed genetic material from more than 100 tigers, from Siberia to China, Indochina, Malaya Peninsula, Sumatra, and the Indian subcontinent.

A Bengal tiger in the tall grassland in India.
Credit: Ullas Karanth

The analysis supported some traditional classifications, such as the Sumatran and Bengal tigers. But it suggests the Indochinese subspecies should be divided into two groups, representing a northern Indochinese and a peninsular Malaya population.

That would make six rather than five living subspecies. The results "offer valuable data for conservation strategies and captive breeding programs," the researchers said in a statement today.

The study was led by Shu-Jin Luo of the Conservation Biology Graduate Program at the University of Minnesota. It appears in the journal PLoS Biology.