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The Maltese Tiger
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PostPosted: Sun Oct 15, 2006 3:04 pm    Post subject: The Maltese Tiger Reply with quote

The Maltese Tiger or Blue Tiger (Panthera tigris melitensis) is an extremely rare color morph of tiger that has historically been reported in the Fujian Province of China and has only been sighted on a few occasions. It is said to have bluish fur with dark gray stripes. The term "Maltese" means "slate grey" and comes from the domestic cat world; it does not refer to Malta as the origin of the blue tigers.

Historical blue tiger sightings
American Methodist missionary Harry R. Caldwell described a clear sighting of a tiger colored in deep shades of blue and maltese (bluish-gray) while in China. Caldwell was an experienced tiger spotter and hunter; during his time in China, he shot literally scores of the big cats. In September of 1910, Caldwell was watching a goat in the Fujian Province. A tiger was pointed out, but at first glance Caldwell believed it to be a man dressed in blue crouching in some brush. Caldwell described his second glance, ...I saw the huge head of the tiger above the blue which had appeared to me to be the clothes of a man. What I had been looking at was the chest and belly of the animal. He raised his gun to fire, but two small children were in the way. During the time it took for him to alter position, the Maltese Tiger vanished. Caldwell described the tiger as having a maltese base color which changed to deep blue on the undersides. The stripes appeared to be similar to those on a Bengal Tiger. He named the tiger "Bluebeard". Though he never caught the cat, villagers confirmed the presence of 'blue devils' roaming the area.

Another account of the same hunt is contained in "A Narrative Of Exploration, Adventure, And Sport In Little-Known China" written by his hunting companion, Roy Chapman Andrews (Associate Curator Of Mammals In The American Museum Of Natural History And Leader Of The Museum's Asiatic Zo├Âlogical Expedition Of 1916-1917) and Yvette Borup Andrews (Photographer Of The Asiatic Zo├Âlogical Expedition) published in 1918 (Chapter 7 "Blue Tiger"): The boys were saved but I had lost the opportunity I had sought for over a year. However, I had again seen the animal about which so many strange tales had been told. The markings of the beast are strikingly beautiful. The ground color is of a delicate shade of maltese, changing into light gray-blue on the underparts. The stripes are well defined and like those of the ordinary yellow tiger.

The same account adds "Black leopards are common in India and the Malay Peninsula and as only a single individual of the blue tiger has been reported the evidence hardly warrants the assumption that it represents a distinct species." The tiger ranged over 7 miles (11 km), raiding villages and even entering homes.

Caldwell's son wrote in "Our Friends The Tigers" (1954) of finding maltese (grey-blue) hairs of Futsing's blue tigers along the mountain trails when accompanying his father during his many searches for the blue tigers.

Richard Perry, in his book "The World Of The Tiger" reiterated that China's blue tigers were called blue devils because they were so often man eaters.

Recent blue tiger sightings
Other very occasional sightings have been claimed of bluish-toned tigers, particularly in the Fujian Province. There was one report from the son of a US Army soldier who served in Korea during the Korean War. His father is certain he sighted a blue tiger in the mountains there, near what is now the Demilitarized Zone. Blue tigers have also been reported from Burma. Caldwell's hunting expedition indicated that blue tigers, if they are a separate race, preferred inaccessible regions where they were less likely to be encountered by humans.

A smokey blue pseudo-melanistic tiger cub was born in the Oklahoma Zoo in 1964 to ordinary Bengal tiger parents. It died in infancy and is preserved as a bottled specimen. There are no blue tiger in zoos or private collections; however, an impression of what a Maltese tiger specimen would look like is posted.

Genetics supporting existence of blue tigers
In support of the blue tiger theory, maltese-colored cats certainly do exist. The most common is a domestic breed, the Russian Blue, but blue bobcats and lynxes have also been recorded and there are genetic mutations and combinations that result in blue tonings, or at least in the impression of a blue-gray animal. One such mutation would affect the background hue. More feasible is a variant expression of chinchilla gene (the same gene found in white tigers).

Adding weight to the argument in favour of bluish individuals, for a long time experts considered the black tiger mythical. Several pelts have proven that pseudo-melanistic tigers exist. Such tigers are not wholly black, but have dense, wide stripes that partially obscure the orange background colour. The pseudo-melanistic tiger cub born in captivity had a smokey hue between some of the stripes.

Possible distribution of Maltese tiger
The Maltese tigers reported to date were of the South Chinese subspecies. Fujian Province was the area most famed for the blue colouring and may have been the home of an aberrant population of tigers. Few, if any, blue tigers now exist in the wild. The number of blue tiger sightings is out of proportion to the tiny population (perhaps 30 cats) which may remain and is more likely to be due to observation of normal tigers in poor light conditions. The gene may be extinct in the wild.

In small or isolated populations, inbreeding can fix traits such as unusual coloration. A non-harmful mutation can soon become widespread in small/isolated and inbred populations. If the mutant gene confers benefit e.g. better camouflage, then affected individuals may out-compete those lacking the mutation.

It is possible that blue tigers were due to a form of the chinchilla gene known as "shaded silver" and familiar to domestic cat breeders. The South China tiger is considered the "stem species" from which all other tigers evolved so it is conceivable that the chinchilla mutation occurred in the South China tiger (whose current range covers Fujian province near Taiwan) resulting in blue-gray individuals. That gene might have been inherited by descendent species of tiger resulting in blue and white varieties of tigers. It might have combined with other genes to produce white tigers in the Amur tiger (north eastern China, northern North Korea and Siberia) since the Amur and South China tigers' ranges may have historically overlapped, allowing the spread of the chinchilla gene through interbreeding.
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