Marcus from our education team gives us the scoop on all of the speed records in the animal kingdom — land, sea, air, and more! This Pulsar podcast is brought to you by #MOSatHome. We ask questions submitted by listeners, so if you have a question you'd like us to ask an expert, send it to us at sciencequestions@mos.org.

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ERIC: From the Museum of Science in Boston, this is Pulsar, a podcast where we search for answers to the most popular questions we've ever gotten from our visitors. When we open up questions during our live streams, or virtual school programs, as we've said before, extremes tend to be a very popular area of question. The biggest star, the oldest dinosaur, and today we're going to explore the question, what's the fastest animal? When I get this question, I have a few different things I like to talk about. And when I talk about animals, I like to talk to Marcus from our education team, who always has such awesome animal facts. Marcus, thanks for joining me.

MARCUS: Hi, Eric. Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be here again.

ERIC: So Marcus, what's the fastest animal?

MARCUS: I love hearing that question. And I used to get that a lot when working at a zoo. And generally, the conversation would always go the same way. And I'd ask: well, what do you mean by that? And speed is relative.

ERIC: Yeah, so it's not just one animal goes the fastest, the end. It's the same as when we were talking about the biggest animal last time. Do you mean fastest overall? Can gravity be involved to help? Do you mean fastest for a long period of time? There's so many different fast animals.

MARCUS: Absolutely. And I'm glad you mentioned over time, because speed depends on distance, and absolutely time. And we might think, all right, well, what's the fastest person? Many people have heard of Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world. But he's fast for a very specific distance and for a very specific time. And so we want to think about that when it comes to animals. Sure, an animal can be really fast in a short burst of speed. But when it comes to a strike or certain movement, that speed is astoundingly diverse across the animal kingdom.

ERIC: So it depends on how long you're sustaining that speed. It depends on whether it counts if you're talking about only moving one part of your body. So I'm sure we're going to talk about so many fast animals, but the one I like to bring up when people ask is the peregrine falcon, because it does those dives at like 200-and-something miles an hour. And that's just, I mean, it's faster than a NASCAR car. It's unbelievably fast. It's so much faster than anything on the ground that we experience in our day to day lives.

MARCUS: Absolutely. The peregrine falcon is recorded to be one of the fastest animals, it's about 270 miles per hour. It is astounding, like you mentioned faster than a NASCAR. But if we think about it, that's not exactly the animal moving independently. Of course, all animals will move against the force of gravity, the earth pulling us down. But the peregrine falcon uses it to its advantage. It uses gravity to help it move faster. That high speed of about 270 miles per hour is obtained dive bombing towards prey that are flying in the sky. And so they use that gravity to reach that top speed. But the bird isn't really flapping its wings. It is trying very hard. But again, that's different versus an animal that's running very quickly or pushing against that force of gravity to move quickly.

ERIC: Yeah so how about land animals? We always hear cheetah, going 60, 70 miles an hour. Is that the fastest land animal?

MARCUS: So yes, over a long distance, running, sprinting? Absolutely. It's the cheetah. In short bursts, they can reach peak speeds of about 72, maybe 74 miles per hour. But again, that's not a speed that they maintain over that short distance, that's just the top peak speed at that specific moment in time, they take a while to get up to that speed. And they of course have to slow down before they come to a complete stop.

ERIC: And there's a lot of, like, runners up because you don't have to run 73 miles an hour to catch something that can only run 15 miles an hour, so I'm sure a lot of their prey is pretty close.

MARCUS: Absolutely, antelopes, for example, they run about maybe 60, or mid-50 miles per hour. But that doesn't mean that the cheetah, even though it runs over 10 miles per hour faster than it, catches it every time. They can shift direction and pivot very quickly and escape the cheetah. They have greater endurance. So as long as they can outlast the cheetah on a run, they're safe. So the cheetah actually has to factor in many different things when they're chasing their prey.

ERIC: Now that's really fast on land. And I know fish can swim about as fast in the water, which is really impressive, because, I mean, I can't run as fast as Usain Bolt, but the speed that I can run in the water, it's like 5% of that speed. So being able to swim as fast as a cheetah is really, really impressive.

MARCUS: Yeah, but some animals in the animal kingdom do that. The sailfish, for example, has been recorded up to 70 miles per hour. Now it's difficult to compare. Sometimes the measure of an animal swimming versus one on land, of course, you're using different instruments to measure their speed. Some of the records I've heard, have involved using how fast fishing line runs off of the cast. And then they measure that, how fast or how long it took for that fishing line to completely go out. And then they try to factor that into miles per hour. And then it starts to just get a little fuzzy. So it's definitely hard to measure how fast an animal goes.

ERIC: Yeah, you don't always have a radar gun to tell you exactly how fast it's going. And you also can't tell an animal like, okay, ready, go! Go as fast as you can! Like, the animals just gonna do whatever it's going to do, especially a wild animal.

MARCUS: Exactly. It's easy to tell a person: run as fast as you can for this certain amount of time or this distance. But it's very hard to tell, let alone train an animal to do that. And so recording or finding the fastest speed in the animal kingdom is difficult. But at the same time, there are a lot of people out there, and this is a question people want to know the answer to. So they are ready to find that out: how fast does this animal move? And so we have some pretty interesting records out there. One of them that people don't typically think of is reptiles. We might think of lizards as potentially slow, or if they're fast, they're just darting into the shadows.

ERIC: Yeah, that burst speed, like, I wouldn't want to get chased by an alligator for 10 or 15 feet, but I'm pretty sure I could outrun it for a couple hundred feet, or a mile.

MARCUS: Absolutely. Those animals, they're fast on land for just a short burst of speed, just like you're saying, but then they tire out quickly. But even then there are some reptiles in that short burst of speed that are faster than most humans, reaching up to 25 miles per hour. And that record is held by the perentie, a large monitor lizard from Australia.

ERIC: Oh man, I can't imagine, like, a really big Australian lizard running at me as fast as Usain Bolt.

MARCUS: Exactly, that would be terrifying. And you might get up to speeds of 25 miles per hour, just because you can't normally run that speed doesn't mean that you can't. When you have that adrenaline kicking, you'd be surprised of what you can do.

ERIC: Now we're just talking in absolute terms of miles per hour, which really isn't fair to small animals. Because you know, an ant could be really fast for that scale. But I'm always going to be able to walk faster than an ant can sprint. So is there any kind of like, fastest animal by unit body size?

MARCUS: Absolutely, like you're saying, it's not really fair to compare large animals to small animals when it comes to speed because they live in very different environments, and they have different things going after them, they don't have to run 50 miles per hour. So when it comes to relative speed, we like to talk about body lengths per second. And the world record holder for that, that we've recorded so far, is the Southern California mite. A very, very small arachnid that can run about 353 body lengths per second. And just to put that into terms that we might understand, if a human ran 353 body lengths per second, it'd be running about 1,300 miles per hour.

ERIC: That's ridiculous. That's like three times as fast as a jetliner, just running along. That's what it's like for this mite who can just bomb along.

MARCUS: Exactly. So relatively, that's very, very fast. But you could outrun this mite because they're just so small, that the real speed is less than what a human runs.

ERIC: That's really, really cool that it can run that fast, even though it's so tiny. It's just unbelievable. And I'm sure that. like you said, that's the record we know of right now. We're probably not going to discover another faster-than-cheetah land animal because we've pretty much explored everywhere, we've found them all. But something like an insect or a tiny mite, that could be faster than that, who knows what we'll discover.

MARCUS: That's one of the things about these records, you might have heard some of the fastest land animals that might be different from what we're saying. And that's true, it might have been different back then. And it will probably be different in the future. Because we're learning new things every day in science, and we're measuring especially the lesser known animals, like different species of fish, and especially invertebrates, very much the very small ones. And that's where we tend to find some particularly astounding movements, is in the very small animals. The Southern California mite, for example, runs very quickly. But when it comes to the fastest twitch, the fastest movement that scientists have recorded, the world record is held by an invertebrate: a very tiny ant.

ERIC: Is that one of those ants that can snap its jaws really fast?

MARCUS: Yes, it is, Eric. Absolutely.

ERIC: I love those.

MARCUS: Yeah, they have special twitch muscles in their mandibles that allow them to twitch and just snap their jaws closed faster than, well, pretty much anything scientists have seen in the animal kingdom. And the world record is held by an ant called the dracula ant. Well, so far. Again, we're discovering new things every single day, and the dracula ant can snap its jaws so quickly that it has a peak velocity of 200 miles per hour. And you might be thinking, well, that doesn't compare much to the peregrine falcon. And you're right, that speed is less than the peregrine falcon. But we're talking about a twitch here. And when it comes to those very quick, small movements, we like to talk about acceleration, and how quickly that movement goes from a stop to their top speed. And in this case, the dracula and can go from zero to 200 miles per hour in less than a millisecond. That's faster than a blink of an eye. In fact, 5,000 times faster than a blink of an eye. The movement works very similarly to the snap of your finger, over 1,000 times faster.

ERIC: And I've seen the videos of that where they can put their mandibles on the ground and then snap them shut and then launch themselves backwards, is there anything else they use that for?

MARCUS: They use that as a defense mechanism. The dracula ant has a mechanism where the mandibles actually begin touching each other, so it's very similar to snapping your fingers. You press each finger very, very tightly against each other until one of them slips. And then you have that very quick movement of when your middle finger or your index finger, whichever finger you're using to snap, quickly falls down and hits your ring finger or your middle finger depending on which one you use. And you hear that snap. That acceleration is very quick. It's happening from zero to the top speed. In the dracula ants, it's very fast, needless to say. Faster than a blink of an eye. And they'll use that to elude predators, they'll snap it when they're getting close to something that's threatening them, they will use that snap to hit that potential predator, that object, and it will shoot them away similar to the trap jaw ant against the ground. And they can also use it to subdue very small prey, especially at that size, a movement that quick can incapacitate, stun, or even kill some small invertebrates.

ERIC: It's an amazing ability. I'm just picturing being able to put my hand against the wall and snap my fingers and launch myself 200 miles an hour in the other direction. I wouldn't have to walk anywhere. I could just snap my way down the road and go grab lunch.

MARCUS: Exactly. You could go anywhere you want, assuming you survive the fall.

ERIC: Well, Marcus this has all been fascinating. Thanks for telling us all about the world's fastest animals.

MARCUS: It's been a pleasure, Eric, thank you so much for having me.

ERIC: You can meet many animals of various speeds in person at the Museum of Science at our daily live animal presentations. And if you don't live near Boston, but you are a student or teacher, you can check out MOSatSchool and our programs featuring animals on screen by visiting mos.org. Until next time, keep asking questions.

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