Well, let’s talk size first. Tigers are heavier, weighing up to 800 pounds to the lion’s 550. But the two cats aren’t so different in size. Here, their profiles are superimposed:
You might remember from high school health class that muscle weighs more than fat, which helps explain the tiger’s extra pounds. So it seems that the tiger would have a physical advantage over the lion.
But it turns out that we have some historical data to add to this conjecture, too. In ancient Rome, the tiger-lion face-off wasn’t uncommon. In 1959, a reader asked the Spokesman-Review this question, and the paper, in turn, asked William Bridges, the curator of publications at the Bronx Zoo. He told them that “back in the day of the Roman Coliseum, the smart money usually backed the tiger.” While we don’t have any great descriptions of the outcomes, ancient paintings of the event usually showed the tiger winning. And in the late 1800′s, the Gaekwad of Baroda, an Indian ruler, arranged a fight between the two beasts. Before the fight began, those running the bettor set the odds at 1 to 37,000 that the tiger would win. It did, and the Gaekwad lost 37,000 rupees.
And in 2011, a tiger killed a lion with a single paw swipe in a run in at Ankara Zoo in Turkey. The tiger apparently found a gap in the fence, and made its way into the lion’s enclosure. When they met, the tiger severed the lion’s jugular vein in just one stroke. Craig Saffoe, a biologist at the Smithsonian Zoo, also generally favored the tiger, telling LiveScience, “What I’ve seen from tigers, they seem to be more aggressive; they go for the throat, go for the kill. Whereas the lions are more, ‘I will just pound you and play with you.’”
But fighting in an arena, and even in a zoo, is quite different than fighting in the wild. If a tiger were to meet a lion without cages or screaming fans, what would happen? That’s actually a question that some conservationists are having to answer right now. There’s a plan to move some Asiatic lions to from the Gir forest to Kuno Palpur, where there are tigers. The University of Minessota’s Lion Research Center says that the plan has been delayed for fear that the native tigers would kill the lions. But in the wild, they say, tigers and lions fight quite differently:
Coalitions of male lions usually fight as a group against territorial rivals, so a tiger may have an advantage in a one-on-one encounter, since this is the typical mode of combat for a tiger. However, a lion coalition of 2–3 males would have a clear advantage over a lone tiger. A group of 2–4 female lions would have a similar advantage over a lone tigress.They conclude that while one on one, a tiger would certainly best a lion, in the wild the lion pride could hold their own against the solitary tiger.
Here’s the Discovery Channel on the face-off: