Watch: Hercules, the Liger – World’s Largest Living Cat

Meet Hercules, the liger, currently the largest cat on Earth. In general, ligers are the largest (heaviest, longest and tallest) cats in the world. They can be more than 900 pounds (~408 kg) and 12 feet (~3.65 m) long, weighing almost 100 times more than house cats and almost twice as much as either Panthera tigris (tiger) or Panthera leo (lion) – two biggest species in the Panthera family.

What is a liger?

The liger, the largest of all known extant felines, is a hybrid cross between a male lion and a female tiger. Despite lions are tigers are separated by about seven million years of evolution, they are still closely enough related that they can hybridize.

Hercules, the liger
Hercules – Largest cat
Guinness World Records 2012
Photo Credit: Jamers Ellerker/GuinnessWorld Records
Location: Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, USA

Hercules, the largest non-obese liger who lives at the Myrtle Beach Safari wildlife preserve in South Carolina, is the World’s largest living cat, according to the 2014 Guinness Book of World Records. He weighs 922 pounds (418.2 kg), is 131 inches (332.74 cm) long, and measures 49 inches (124.46 cm) tall at the shoulder.

He was born among a litter of four in November 2001 at the preserve and named after the mythological character. Hercules, who consumes 20 to 25 pounds of meat daily (9-11 kg) and has favorite logs he uses to sharpen his claws, also has traveled coast to coast to promote wildlife conservation.

Related: Hybrid big cats

A liger looks like a giant lion with muted stripes but like thier tiger ancestors. Ligers enjoy swimming, which is a characteristic of tigers, and are very sociable like lions. They exist only in captivity because the habitats of the parental species do not overlap in the wild. Historically, when the Asiatic Lion was prolific, the territories of lions and tigers did overlap and there are legends of ligers existing in the wild. Notably, ligers typically grow larger than either parent species, unlike tigons which tend to be about as large as a female tiger and is the cross between a male tiger and a lioness.

The fertility of hybrid big cat females is well documented across a number of different hybrids. This is in accordance with Haldane’s rule: in hybrids of animals whose sex is determined by sex chromosomes, if one sex is absent, rare or sterile, it is the heterogametic sex (the one with two different sex chromosomes e.g. X and Y).

According to Wild Cats of the World (1975) by C. A. W. Guggisberg, ligers and tigons were long thought to be sterile: in 1943, a fifteen-year-old hybrid between a lion and an ‘Island’ tiger was successfully mated with a lion at the Munich Hellabrunn Zoo. The female cub, though of delicate health, was raised to adulthood.

In September 2012, the Russian Novosibirsk Zoo announced the birth of a “liliger”, which is the offspring of a liger mother and a lion father. The cub was named Kiara. In 2013 the same pair of an African lion and a female liger produced three more female cubs.

Hercules, the liger, with his trainer
Hercules – Largest cat with his trainer Bhagavan “Doc” Antle.
Guinness World Records 2012
Photo Credit: Jamers Ellerker/GuinnessWorld Records
Location: Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, USA

Ligers and other hybrid big cats – a banned practice

Hercules may be cute, but experts warn that Ligers and other big cat hybrids are pointless and unethical. Breeding of two different pantheras has been banned in many zoos and animal sanctuaries due to no conservation value of the hybrid, and the risk it poses on the mother that gives birth to it. For instance, the liger’s increased growth rate and enormous size can cause the tigress giving birth to have a difficult delivery, endangering both the mother and her liger cubs, which may be born prematurely or require a Caesarian. Common problems in cubs that survive are neurological disorders, obesity, genetic defects, and a shortened lifespan; though a few have reportedly made it to their twenties, many don’t survive past the age of seven. Moreover, male ligers have lowered testosterone levels and sperm counts, rendering them infertile while females, though capable of reproducing with either a lion or a tiger, often give birth to sickly cubs that don’t survive.

However, hybrids do occur by accident in captivity.


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