What do you think is the fastest animal on Earth?
If like most people you said a cheetah, you’re wrong.
For some reason, it seems many parts of the world teach children in school that the cheetah is the planet’s fastest creature. But figuring out the fastest animal isn’t as easy as the heaviest (the blue whale) and the tallest (the giraffe).
It’s more complicated than this.
“When we talk about something being fast, it’s really not clear if you’re talking about the total duration, the total time it takes to perform the movement, the speed at which it’s performed, and the acceleration at which it’s performed,” says Sheila Patek, biologist and founder of Duke University’s Patek Lab. “Each one of these things means very different things.”
If we restrict our search for the fastest animal just to land animals reaching the fastest possible speed, then cheetahs are the fastest on Earth, reaching speeds of up to 29 meters per second (about 64 miles per hour).
Yet even then this requires some context. Cheetahs run in order to chase down prey, but the prey will zig zag, slowing down the cheetah.
“They have a relatively low acceleration and thus take a long duration to achieve their impressive speeds,” says Patek.
The sailfish is another animal that is sometimes included in the list of the fastest on Earth. These large fish can reach speeds of 30 meters per second (68 miles per hour) when they break through the waves.
These big-billed-beasts move so fast that they’ve evolved special tissues that heat up their eye balls so they can process images at such a fast speed.
The fastest land and sea creatures don’t even get close to the top speed of the fastest air animal, the falcon.
When hunting, falcons climb to enormous heights and then use the force of gravity to plummet down toward prey at simply mammoth speeds.
In fact, in one study a gyrfalcon was found to accelerate to speeds between 52 and 58 meters per second (116 to 129 miles per hour) after free-falling from a height of 500 meters.
Does this mean that we can award the fastest animal on earth to the falcon, instead of the cheetah? Well, it depends on what we mean by speed.
Falcons can reach the greatest speeds on earth, but they take a long time to accelerate to reach these speeds.
If we’re looking for the fastest accelerating animals, we need to consider the jellyfish, for example. When one of them stings you, they are actually launching billions of microscopic venom harpoons into your skin at speeds similar to a bullet being fired out of a gun.
In terms of high acceleration-driven speed, trap-jaw ants and termite jaws are the most impressive. They’re basically walking bear traps.
These ants can close their jaws at speeds of 64 meters per second (about 143 miles per hour), and what’s interesting is seeing them try to get away by blasting their jaws on the ground (see below).
No matter how you look at it, the cheetah isn’t the fastest animal on Earth. But it’s difficult to say which is the fastest, as it depends on whether you are looking at speed or acceleration.
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