Tigers’ Personalities are Unique, Study Finds

Tiger personalities are as distinctive as those of humans, according to a new study. Find out how this clarifies the nature versus nurture debate and can improve nature conservation efforts.

I’m old enough to remember the opening of the Toronto Zoo about 50 years ago. It was a big improvement over the old Riverdale Zoo it replaced.

Covering almost 300 hectares, it’s one of the world’s largest zoos, housing over 5,000 animals representing 450 species. It’s organized geographically, and I particularly remember the Indo-Malaysia pavilion.

On  a family visit there, not long after the zoo opened, we were walking past the tiger enclosure. One of the tigers seemed to find it fun to hide behind a large sign and then pounce toward the fence, startling passers-by.

Tiger Seemed Like Class Clown of the Pack

He seemed to be the class clown of the pack. The others didn’t seem to have the same enthusiasm for his little stunt.

I guess this was an example of tiger personalties. It’s a relatively new research field that started about ten years ago.  Researchers from the University of Edinburgh and the Ranthamore Foundation teamed up to discover that tigers in the wild display variations in personality.

Some tigers are bolder, more aggressive or more sociable than others. This matters because these inherited traits drive their survival and mating success through natural selection.

Tiger Personalities are Distinct and Persistent

Then, in 2019, researchers for the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Panthera Foundation conducted a joint study looking at tigers in captivity. They also found that tiger personalities are  distinct, and that personality traits persist in different situations.

Professor Rosalind Arden has been studying how nature and nurture influence thoughts and personalities for almost two decades. Working at the London School of Economics, she’s been a significant contributor to an idea called the “smart gene hypothesis.”

According to the smart gene hypothesis, some of our genes are linked to intelligence. Scientists like Professor Arden think that genetic variations play a major part in individual differences in memory, problem-solving and reasoning.

Tiger Personalites in a Semi-Wild Environment

Last week, Professor Arden and a team of her colleagues published a paper in the journal Royal Society Open Science. They’re the first team to study tiger personalities in a semi-wild environment.

The researchers targeted 248 Siberian tigers, sometimes called Amur tigers, living in two wildlife sanctuaries in northeastern China. The tigers aren’t exactly wild because conservation authorities have fenced in their forested or snowy grassland territories.

The caretakers at the sanctuaries know each of the tigers personally. So, the team sent them questionnaires based on those human psychology tests readers may have taken with personality trait checklists.

Caretakers Completed Personality Checklists

The team received over 800 questionnaires  with more than one survey per tiger. They used statistical analysis to find clusters of tiger traits.

About 38% of the tigers fell into one of two personality types. The “majesty” group included tigers described as confident, competitive or ambitious, for example.

The scientists called the other major personality group “steadiness.” These tigers were more obedient, tolerant and gentle.

“Majesty” Personality Group Members Were Healthier

When the team compared the tigers’ weights and eating habits with their personalities, they found that the majesty group members were healthier. They hunted more, had more mates and  produced more offspring.

“It could be that majesty is the dimension that gives animals the extra edge to take that extra risk,” Professor Arden suggested. “If food resources are scarce, the tiger that is the higher risk-taker will get one extra hunt each month.”

Professor Arden was quick to point out that dominance isn’t necessarily a guarantee of evolutionary success for animals. For example, with primates, including humans, cooperative and friendly individuals are usually more successful than more aggressive group members.

Confidence and Ambition Are Advantageous for Tigers

In the case of tigers, they’re solitary animals patrolling territories as large as 2,000 square kilometres. So, being confident and ambitious seems to be an advantage for their species.

Understanding tiger personalities may support planning for future nature conservation projects. Knowing how tigers interact with their environment, other species and humans can improve future preservation efforts.

In regions where humans and tigers live together, having a better grasp of tiger personalities can help reduce conflicts between our two species. Potentially, this knowledge can play a part in the environmental coexistence we need to learn in order to usher in a proposed new ecozoic era.

Promote Human-Tiger Coexistence

This deeper understanding of tiger personalities can help authorities plan efforts to avoid human-tiger conflicts and promote peaceful coexistence in areas where they share the same space.

Professor Arden and her team’s discoveries remind us that even well-known species like tigers can surprise us with hidden traits like sophisticated personalities. It’s these unexpected lessons that lead us to ask questions, challenge assumptions and make discoveries. 

And Another Thing…

Humanity is seeking a new story about its place in the world that recognizes the interconnection between all living beings. This improved understanding of tiger personalities reminds us of the connection between our minds and those of other animals.

Other creatures aren’t homogenous members of an abstract species. They’re individuals with unique personalities and behaviours, and that realization helps make sense of the natural world and our role in it.

Professor Arden concluded by saying, “Our hope is that the illumination of the magnificence and rich interior life and personalities of these animals is making a tiny contribution to tiger welfare and conservation.”

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more

Tigers have distinct personalities, according to big cat questionnaire
Majestic tigers: personality structure in the great Amur cat
Human-Wildlife Conflict Aggravated by Climate Crisis
Safeguarding Biodiversity Means Conserving 44% of Earth’s Land

‘Making Peace with Nature’ Report Offers Sustainable Blueprint


2 thoughts on “Tigers’ Personalities are Unique, Study Finds

  1. Great blog post! It’s fascinating to learn about the different personalities of tigers and how it can affect their survival and mating success. I’m curious, do you think this new understanding of tiger personalities can also be applied to other big cats or even other animals? Thank you for sharing this interesting research!

    mr. w



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