Ligers are the largest cats on Earth. A liger can be more than 900 pounds (about 408 kg) in weight and 12 feet (about 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).
The liger, the largest of all known extant felines, is a hybrid cross between a male lion and a female tiger.
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Hercules: the largest living cat on Earth
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 2003 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
Hercules may be cute, but breeding of ligers has been banned in many zoos and animal sanctuaries due to no conservation value of the hybrid, and the risk it poses on the tigress that gives birth to it. Keeping the two species separate has been standard procedure. However, ligers do occur by accident in captivity.
Related: Top 5 largest prehistoric cats
What is a liger?
The liger is a hybrid offspring of a male lion (Panthera leo) and a female tiger (Panthera tigris). It is the largest of all known extant felines.
They look like a giant lion with muted stripes but like their 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.
But, 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).
How long does a liger live?
Ligers, like lions and tigers, can live more than 20 years in captivity.
Shasta, a ligress (female liger) was born at the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City on 14 May 1948 and died in 1972 at age 24. Nook, a male at the Valley of the Kings Animal Sanctuary in Wisconsin died in 2007, at 21 years old. Hobbs, a male at the Sierra Safari Zoo in Reno, Nevada, lived to almost 15 years of age before succumbing to liver failure and weighed in at 450 kg (992 lb). He was born in 1943 and died in 1960. South Africa still has two ligers at its one zoo at Bloemfontein.
Hercules was born in November 2003. As of January 2020, he is 16 years old. He was not born alone, as along with Hercules, his three more brothers were born as well whose names included Sinbad, Vulcan, and Zeus.
The biggest cat ever lived on Earth: Nook the liger. He was even larger than Hercules
Nook, a male liger at the Valley of the Kings Animal Sanctuary in Wisconsin who died in 2007 as way bigger than Hercules: he weighed over 550 kg (1,213 lb). This is a huge weight for a big cat, even for a liger. It is believed that he was probably the largest and biggest cat ever lived on Earth.
Can ligers reproduce?
Like tigons, they were long thought to be sterile, however, they can sometimes reproduce.
If the father is a lion and the mother is a liger, the cubs are named liliger. If the father is a tiger and the mother is a liger, the cubs are named tiliger.
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.