For tiger moms, the work-life balance struggle is real, study finds

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  • For the first time ever, scientists were able to document the behavior of a GPS-collared Amur tiger in the wild for the four months before and four months after the birth of her cubs.
  • The study, published in the journal Mammal Research, reveals that the new tiger mom made time for her cubs by abandoning defense of her territory, traveling more rapidly from kills, making fewer but larger kills, and resting less.
  • The Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), sometimes referred to as the Siberian tiger, is currently listed as an endangered species on the IUCN Red List.
  • Poaching is now the biggest threat to the wild Amur tigers, as tiger parts continue to be in high demand throughout Asia for use as ornaments, in traditional medicine, and as a status symbol.

Being a single mom is tough, even for a strong and formidable tigress. Hunting, protecting the territory, spending time with the cubs, resting — how does she do it all?

For the first time ever, scientists were able to document the behavior of a GPS-collared Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) in the wild for the four months before and four months after the birth of her cubs. The study, published in journal Mammal Research, reveals the sacrifices and changes the new mother, called Vavarra, made to care for her young.

Vavarra, a female Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) in her home range in 2014. Image courtesy of WCS and Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve.

“This study shows that even tigers struggle balancing ‘work’ and ‘family time.’ It’s a constant balancing act to keep their cubs safe while trying to keep themselves fed,” Dale Miquelle, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Russia program and tiger program coordinator, said in a statement.

Tiger cubs are vulnerable to predation from wolves, bears, lynxes and leopards, so Vavarra’s strategy was to spend as much time with her cubs as possible to keep them protected. To achieve this balance, she abandoned defending her territory, moved around less, traveled more rapidly, made fewer but larger kills, and spent a lot less time resting.

“The results simply provide a more graphic understanding of what we already intuitively know — that raising kids is hard, and for single moms, it is especially hard. Tigresses need to make sacrifices, and balance protection and nurture to be successful. Many cubs are no doubt lost during this early period,” Miquelle told Mongabay.

Once her cubs were born, Vavarra greatly reduced the size of her range from around 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) down to 180 km2 (70 mi2). Overall, she spent less time moving, but when she did travel, she moved more quickly, especially when returning home from a kill. When the cubs were old enough to travel, she brought them with her to kill sites where she could both protect and feed the cubs and herself.

“A tiger, like most large carnivores, is in a continual race trying to stay ahead of starvation,” Miquelle said. “Any slight injury, or a few missed opportunities, put a tiger at a huge risk of not making it. So when you add the additional burdens of ‘how do I keep my cubs safe from other predators?’ and ‘how do I make sure that not only am I fed, but how do I get enough calories to my cubs to keep them fed?’ you can see the dilemma.”

The Amur tiger, sometimes referred to as the Siberian tiger (though it doesn’t live in Siberia), is currently listed as an endangered species on the IUCN Red List. A 2015 census estimated between 523 to 540 individuals in the wild, though there haven’t been any scientifically rigorous surveys of the wild population, according to Miquelle. And, because the majority of the Amur tiger population lives in the harsh environment of the Russian Far East, they are notoriously difficult to study.

“Getting this information is not easy. The fact that no one has done this before is an indication of the difficulty,” Miquelle said. “Because we had a GPS collar on Vavarra, those locations came regularly. But to find out what she was doing required us to be in the field nearly every day, checking locations where she had been.”

Vavarra, a female Amur tiger, in the snow of Far East Russia. Image Courtesy of WCS and Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve.

By finding Vavarra’s tracks in the snow, the scientists were able to “walk in her footsteps and essentially relive those moments with her,” Miquelle said. Retracing her steps allowed the team to find the kills she made, estimate how long she stayed at kills, and get a sense of how she traveled to and from those sites.

“Our goal is to never see the tiger to avoid influencing her behavior, but to be constantly ‘one step behind,’” Miquelle said. “For me, it is a real privilege to be able to walk in the steps of a tiger. It never gets old.”

In the 1930s, Amur tigers were on the verge of extinction, with a population of around 30 animals. Conservation measures, such as a strict ban on hunting enforced by dedicated rangers, brought the tigers back from the brink. However, tigers still face substantial threats from habitat loss, roads, illegal hunting of tiger prey such as deer and wild boar, and poaching.

Young volunteers find a Siberian roe deer trapped in a poacher’s snare in January, 2016. Photo courtesy of Global Protected Area Friendly System
Young volunteers find a Siberian roe deer trapped in a poacher’s snare in January, 2016. Photo courtesy of Global Protected Area Friendly System

Tiger parts continue to be in high demand throughout Asia for use as ornaments, in traditional medicine, and as a status symbol.  The availability of tiger parts from breeding facilities known as “tiger farms” legitimizes and increases this demand, contributing to the main threat to the wild tiger, poaching. The Wildlife Conservation Society estimates that, in the Russian Far East, 20-30 tigers are poached every year.

“I never cease to be amazed by [the tiger’s] strength, adaptability, and persistence,” Miquelle said. “But it is because of these characteristics that they are sought after for traditional medicines by people who believe in the curative process of tiger body parts. Unless people from Asian cultures change their appetite for tiger medicines, we could lose tigers in the wild, and the miracle of their existence would be gone.”

Banner image of Panthera tigris altaica in a zoo. Photo by S. Taheri, edited by Fir0002 [CC BY-SA].

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough_

Citation: Petrunenko, Y. K., Seryodkin, I. V., Bragina, E. V., Soutyrina, S. S., Mukhacheva, A. S., Rybin, N. N., & Miquelle, D. G. (2019). How does a tigress balance the opposing constraints of raising cubs? Mammal Research. doi: 10.1007/s13364-019-00466-x

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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