The animal mascots of the National Football League could fill a small zoo with horses, big cats, bears, dolphins, and assorted birds of prey. Many of these beasts wouldn’t be found together in the wild, but they do occasionally face off on football’s biggest stage.
This Sunday, the Los Angeles Rams take on the Cincinnati Bengals in the 56th Super Bowl, and this year’s national championship presents a rare opportunity to speculate on what a showdown might look like between the two species.
Although tigers are apex predators and the world’s biggest cats, don’t write off rams just yet. When going into battle, rams know how to use their heads.
Rams, or male bighorn sheep, measure six feet in length and weigh 250 pounds on average, or about the same as the average football player. They'll rarely exceed 300 pounds, or defensive linemen size. Their long, curved horns and skull alone can weigh up to 30 pounds—as much as the rest of their bones combined. In the wild, horn size helps determine a ram’s place in their social hierarchy, which is often settled with a bout of head-butting between males.
“You’ll see as the most dominant males get older, the younger males that are getting into their prime will start fighting them,” says Morgan Vance, an ungulate, or hoofed mammal, keeper at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. Their battles “can be pretty intense,” says Vance.
Like other ungulates, rams like to stick by their friends and family. Female bighorn sheep usually live together in herds that include juveniles, while mature males opt for bachelor-only groups as large as 50. When a ram is with their herd, they’re unlikely to get picked off by a mountain lion, for example—but it’s a different story if the ram is facing a feline predator alone.
“If it’s one on one, I hate to say it, but the ram is done,” says Vance, describing the imaginary scene of a ram going up against a Bengal tiger. “But if they are with their herd—and it would be really rare that they wouldn’t be—then they have safety numbers.”
Unlike rams, adult tigers prefer to live alone and aggressively scent-mark their territory with urine to keep rivals away. An adult male Bengal tiger can weigh anywhere from 400 to 500 pounds. To sustain their impressive size, a hungry Bengal tiger can consume as much as 75 pounds of meat in one night.
The stalk-and-ambush hunters are some of the most calculated predators in the animal kingdom. To take down their prey, the tiger uses its retractable claws and four-inch-long canine teeth.
“They would pick out an animal that appears to be sick, or kind of lagging behind and they would wait for that animal to be separated a little bit from the herd,” explains Leigh Pitsko, an assistant curator for great cats at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Once the tiger gets as close as possible to their prey without being seen, they pounce.
“They would typically bite either the side of its neck or the back of its neck,” Pitsko says. “They would either sever the spinal cord or just suffocate the animal to death.”
Because tigers need an element of surprise to capture their next meal, their hunting environment can sway their chances of finding dinner. They rely on their unique striping pattern for camouflage in wooded tropical forests and mangrove swamps of their diverse range throughout the Indian subcontinent.
In an open environment like, say, a football field, a ram might have a better shot at surviving, but only slightly. During a fight, rams run toward one another at speeds up to 40 miles an hour. When their horns crash together, a loud crack can be heard a mile away. While rams rarely fight to the death, Vance explains, a bad horn break is sometimes fatal.
While a ram could try charging the cat, “tigers are pretty smart and fast, and they would probably be able to outrun and outwit the ram,” says Pitsko. “The tiger has the advantage of having offensive and defensive skills. They’re the ultimate killing machines.”
Putting the two animals in the ram’s natural habitat, however, may tip the scales. Because bighorn sheep are native to the Rocky Mountain region of North America, they have become experts at navigating obstacles while evading predators, including golden eagles, bears, mountain lions and coyotes.
“The cool thing about rams is that while being so big, they're extremely agile,” says Vance.
Rams rely on high-traction hoofs to grip ledges and cliffsides with amazing stability. Their outer hooves snag rocky protrusions, while a soft foot pad provides a more malleable grip. Despite their size, bighorn sheep can stand on ledges that are only two inches wide, leap as far as 20 feet from one ledge to the next, and scale mountainsides at an impressive 15 miles per hour. A tiger may just not be able to keep up.
Would a Bengal tiger even like chowing down on ram? They generally aren’t picky eaters, but their main food source is sambar deer, an elk-like ungulate twice the size of a bighorn sheep. They’ll also eat monkeys and crocodiles, too. When they live near humans, they’ve been known to go for livestock like goats and cattle. Rams, by contrast, are herbivores that opt to graze on grasses and woody plants.
“There's a clear advantage there for the tiger—this is what they do,” says Pitsko. “I think the rams are out of luck.”