Who Would Have Won a Dire Wolf vs. Saber-Toothed Tiger Faceoff?

Both animals were large and strong, but each had its weaknesses

Artwork of a sabre-toothed cat (Smilodon sp.)
JOE TUCCIARONE/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

The dire wolf (Canis dirus) and the saber-toothed tiger (Smilodon fatalis) are two of the best-known megafauna mammals of the late Pleistocene epoch, prowling North America until the last Ice Age and the advent of modern humans. Thousands of their skeletons have been dredged from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, indicating that these predators lived in close proximity. Both were formidable, but which would triumph in mortal combat?

Dire Wolf

The dire wolf was a plus-size predecessor of the modern dog and a close relative of the grey wolf (Canis lupus), a carnivore that also scoured Pleistocene North America. (The word "dire," meaning "fearful" or "threatening," comes from the Greek word dirus.)

As the genus Canis goes, the dire wolf was pretty big. Some may have weighed up to 200 pounds, though 100 to 150 pounds was normal. This predator had powerful, bone-crushing jaws and teeth, used mostly for scavenging rather than hunting. The discovery of huge numbers of associated dire wolf fossils is evidence of pack behavior.

Dire wolves had significantly smaller brains than grey wolves, which may explain how the latter helped drive it to extinction. Also, the dire wolf's legs were much shorter than those of modern wolves or large dogs, so it probably couldn't run much faster than a house cat. Finally, the dire wolf's predilection for scavenging rather than hunting would probably have put it at a disadvantage facing a hungry saber-toothed tiger.

Saber-Toothed Tiger

Despite its popular name, the saber-toothed tiger was only distantly related to modern tigers, lions, and cheetahs. The Smilodon fatalis dominated North (and eventually South) America. The Greek name Smilodon roughly translates as "saber tooth."

Its notable weapons were its long, curved teeth.

However, it didn't attack prey head-on with them; it lounged in low tree branches, pouncing suddenly and digging its enormous canines into its victim. Some paleontologists believe that the tiger also hunted in packs, though evidence is less compelling than for the dire wolf.

As big cats go, Smilodon fatalis was relatively slow, stocky, and thick-limbed, the biggest adults weighing 300 to 400 pounds but not as nimble as a comparably sized lion or tiger. Also, as scary as its canines were, its bite was relatively weak; chomping too hard on prey might have broken one or both saber teeth, effectively dooming it to slow starvation.

The Fight

In normal circumstances, full-grown saber-toothed tigers wouldn't have come near comparably sized dire wolves. But if these predators converged on the tar pits, the saber-tooth would have been at a disadvantage, because it couldn't pounce from a tree branch. The wolf was at a disadvantage because it would rather feast on dead herbivores than hungry carnivores. The two animals would have circled each other, the dire wolf swatting with its paws, the saber-toothed tiger lunging with its teeth.

If Smilodon fatalis roamed in packs, they likely were small and loosely associated, whereas the dire wolf's pack instincts would have been much more robust.

Sensing that a pack member was in trouble, three or four other wolves would have rushed to the scene and swarmed the saber-toothed tiger, inflicting deep wounds with their massive jaws. The tiger would have put up a good fight, but it would have been no match for a thousand pounds of canines. A crushing bite to Smilodon's neck would have ended the battle.