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Their heads are shaped like a lioness’s, yet faint stripes and shorter legs suggest a different heritage. Are these lions or tigers? Neither – they are ligers, a cross between a male lion and a tigress.
Four-week-old Aries hardly cuts a commanding figure as he sits on his big brother’s head. Yet the cub will grow to match colossal Hercules, who weighs more than 64 stone.
Ligers grow at such an explosive rate, piling on about 1 lb per day, that by the time Aries reaches his first birthday, he is expected to weigh more than 26 stone.
When he is three, he could be more than 50 stone, and a few more years on he may challenge his brother for the title of the world’s biggest hybrid cat.
Standing almost 6ft tall to the tips of his ears, Hercules has a page devoted to him in the Guinness World Records book.
The siblings, both more playful than pure lions, were born at Myrtle Beach Safari wildlife reserve in South Carolina.
The project is run by The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.).
Its director, Dr Bhagavan Antle, said: ‘Aries could be just as big as Hercules and it is entirely possible he could be bigger.
‘Generally lions and tigers don’t reproduce and the male lion breeding with a tiger has only happened three times.
‘The great thing about ligers is they have this extreme social ability they get from their lion fathers.They enjoy the social life and enjoy touching and interactive play.’
Trainer Moksha Bybee, 30, added: ‘The liger’s aggression is tempered by the mother tiger which gives them a greater social capacity. They love rolling against you and wanting to touch and play.’
The alternative combination of the two fiercest big cats – a cross between a male tiger and a lioness – is known as a tigon. They are as rare as ligers but smaller, and are being bred in China.
Normally, it is virtually impossible for the two species to mate in the wild as lions are mostly found in Africa and most tigers on the Asian continent. The two tribes are also extremely territorial.
Hercules is the heaviest from his litter of ligers, all of them born in 2002. He already has three brothers called Sinbad, Vulcan and Zeus.
Ligers have lighter stripes than tigers and a lion-shaped head, but with little mane.
Hercules’s face is 2ft 3in across and his 2in claws are the same size as those of a velociraptor dinosaur (famed for
its role as a deadly predator in the film Jurassic Park).
Like tigers, he also likes to swim – a feat almost unheard of among lions, which fear water.