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Tiny collars fitted on youngest-ever tiger cubs


Conservationists follow six-weeks old wild tigers for first time

Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and their Russian colleagues from the Sikhote-Alin Reserve have fitted three wild Siberian tiger cubs under six weeks old with tiny radio-collars, marking the youngest wild tigers to be tracked by scientists. The collars-made with an elastic designed to expand and eventually break and fall off of the growing cubs-weigh just over five ounces and would fit well on a large house cat. These devices will give researchers crucial insights into the lives of tiger cubs in the Russian Far East and ways of improving the survival and reproduction of the largest of the cat species.

"Through radio telemetry, we’ve learned a great deal about the needs of Siberian tigers, animals so elusive that few field researchers have seen them in their natural habitat," said John Goodrich, a WCS researcher and the head of the Siberian Tiger Project. "Now we can finally get some idea of what causes the deaths of tiger cubs, which suffer a mortality rate of nearly 50 percent in their first year; if we can somehow improve their chances, we can make a big difference in helping the population to grow."

Working near the Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik, the researchers located the den by tracking a radio-collared 3-year-old tigress named Galia. Of course, finding the cubs required some caution, particularly in making sure Mom was not home. The researchers waited until Galia’s radio signal indicated that she had left the den site before searching for the cubs, which they found in a collection of rocks on the slope of a hill. The cubs, who weighed from 6.5 to nine pounds, remained calm as the researchers handled and measured them. After collecting hair and blood samples for genetic and disease analysis, Goodrich and his team fitted them with radio collars and returned them to their den.

The cubs represent the third generation of radio-collared tigers for the project, which has been monitoring the cats in the Russian Far East for the past decade. The mother of the cubs-an animal named Galia by Goodrich and his colleagues-was captured and radio-collared in the autumn of 2002. The cubs’ grandmother Lidia was fitted with a collar back in October, 1999.

Provided by WCS researcher Toni Ruth, who has used the devices for years for tracking mountain lion kittens in the Greater Yellowstone area, the collars will enable researchers to follow the tiger cubs until the collars fall off or the cubs themselves die. The transmitters emit a "mortality" signal if the unit remains stationary for more than one hour. Finding the animal quickly is crucial in ascertaining the cause of death.

WCS is the only conservation organization that studies tigers in every country where these cats occur.

John Delaney | EurekAlert!
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