Tigers use a gruntlike snort called chuffing as a greeting, short roars for intimidation and long roars to find mates.
Researchers are now trying to use those and other tiger sounds to help protect and boost the animal’s population in the wild.
The effort, called the Prusten Project, is the idea of Courtney Dunn, who works at the Dallas World Aquarium as a senior mammal keeper and has a master’s degree in biology. Prusten is another word for chuffing.
“What we have discovered with our research is that tiger voices can be used like a fingerprint for individuals, like a vocal fingerprint as unique as you and I,” Dunn said.
The first part of the project involves using digital devices to record Bengal, Malayan, Sumatran and Amur tigers at zoos across the nation. Ten zoos already have recorded tigers with at least another 10 planning to do so.
Project officials are using those recordings to build a computer program to help identify specific tigers and determine more accurate population numbers so that organizations know where to focus their protection efforts. They also can listen in to see if any poaching activity is occurring.
Dunn says they can also distinguish between male and female sounds, and knowing that information will tell them if there is a healthy breeding population.
The project is being paid for through the American Association of Zookeepers and various animal-related institutions throughout the country.
In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee County Zoo recorded audio from four tigers before they sent one female off to another zoo to make room for possible offspring.
“Most zookeepers, we get into this because we love animals and we love conservation,” said Amanda Ista, zookeeper in the big cats area at the Milwaukee County Zoo. “To be part of a project that is directly linked to conservation is a really cool thing for us.”
Dunn said project members plan to begin using the digital audio recorders in the wild next year in India and possibly Indonesia.
According to the World Wildlife Fund and Global Tiger Forum, there are nearly 3,900 wild tigers, mostly in Asia, compared with an estimated 3,200 in 2010.
Tigers in zoos “are helping their cousins in the wild” by lending their voices to the project, Ista said. Wild tigers, she added, need “as much [help] as they can get.”