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What is the Fastest Animal in the World?

Updated on May 12, 2012
Usain Bolt may be the fastest human on Earth, but he is practically standing still compared to the fastest animals on Earth
Usain Bolt may be the fastest human on Earth, but he is practically standing still compared to the fastest animals on Earth | Source

The Fastest Animals on Earth

The fastest human alive, Usain Bolt, holds the world record for 100-metres with a time of 9.58 seconds. Bolt has the ideal traits for high speeds:

  • Tall height
  • Balanced weight
  • Powerful muscles

But even though Bolt rules the roost among us humans, his top speed of 27mph is a slow jog for the fastest animals on Earth.

The worlds fastest animals are the pinnacle of millions of years of evolution. In the arms race of hunter and hunted, speed can be a weapon for both offense and defence. All of the world's fastest animals are exquisitely adapted for high speed movement - with some risking life and limb to go faster.

The Fastest Bird on Earth

In a race between the Peregrine Falcon and the Cheetah, the bird would pass the cat in a matter of seconds and then disappear over the horizon. The Falcon can hit an enormous 200mph (320kph) at the bottom of a dive (stoop) making it the fastest animal on the planet.

This colossal top speed is achieved with a helping hand from gravity. The Peregrine starts a hunt by climbing to a great height and then diving on its prey - even when they themselves are airborne (the staple food of a Peregrine is the humble pigeon). The effect of gravity is maximised by the Peregrine's anatomy:

  • An enlarged keel allows for a greater number of bigger muscles to attach the wings to the body. This allows it to build a huge amount of power per thrust to build up speed.
  • Streamlined and ultra pointed wings combined with stiff and unslotted feathers significantly reduces air resistance and maximises acceleration and speed.
  • The Peregrine maintains a steady oxygen flow from its (enlarged) heart and lungs to its (numerous) red muscle fibres. Consequently, the Peregrine does not suffer from oxygen deprivation and does not need to rest post-kill.

The Fastest Animal on Earth - The Peregrine Falcon

The Fastest Land Animal on Earth

0-60 in three seconds, the acceleration of the Cheetah rivals that of the most technologically advanced supercar. Cheetahs have dedicated themselves to life in the fast lane with a top speed of 70mph. This high speed and vicious acceleration come at a price - the Cheetah risks brain damage and starvation due to the huge demands high speed places on their anatomy.

Cheetahs have a number of adaptations to maintain their top speed:

  • Enlarged lungs and nostrils allow for a fast and deep air-intake. Breath-rate increases three-fold during a chase
  • For its body size, Cheetah have an enlarged heart to pump a huge amount of blood around the body during a chase
  • A flexible spine acts a spring, increasing the top speed. This high speed is counterbalanced with a long and flexible tail. This is the key to the Cheetah's agility.
  • The Cheetah is the only big cat that cannot retract it's claws - this maximises grip on the dusty plains.
  • Like all supercars, the Cheetah is lightweight - with a slender build (to minimise air resistance) and average weight of 125lb (57kg), the Cheetah has an outstanding power-to-weight ratio

Despite these adaptations, the Cheetah can only maintain a sprint for a matter of seconds; a long chase leaves a Cheetah dangerously close to oxygen deprivation (this is why Cheetahs try to close the gap as much as possible before starting a chase). To compensate for this a Cheetah must rest post-kill before it eats, this leaves plenty of time for Hyena and Lion to steal the kill.

The Fastest Animals on Earth

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The Peregrine Falcon - the fastest animal on Earth. Making use of gravity and a body honed by millions of years of evolution, the Peregrine Falcon is over 130mph faster than the CheetahThe Cheetah - the fastest land animal on Earth. The Cheetah can go from 0-40mph in a mere three strides.The Sailfish - the fastest fish in the oceans. This fish can swim for long distances at 40mph and has been clocked at 70mph.The Greyhound is the second fastest accelerating land animal in the world behind the Cheetah.The tiger beetle can sprint at 5.6mph. Relative to body length, the beetle would be moving at around 480mph if scaled up to human size!The Springbok may be slower than the Cheetah, but can keep up its' top speed (50mph) over long distances. The fastest snake in the world - the Black Mamba. This reptile can strike at up to 12mph.
The Peregrine Falcon - the fastest animal on Earth. Making use of gravity and a body honed by millions of years of evolution, the Peregrine Falcon is over 130mph faster than the Cheetah
The Peregrine Falcon - the fastest animal on Earth. Making use of gravity and a body honed by millions of years of evolution, the Peregrine Falcon is over 130mph faster than the Cheetah | Source
The Cheetah - the fastest land animal on Earth. The Cheetah can go from 0-40mph in a mere three strides.
The Cheetah - the fastest land animal on Earth. The Cheetah can go from 0-40mph in a mere three strides. | Source
The Sailfish - the fastest fish in the oceans. This fish can swim for long distances at 40mph and has been clocked at 70mph.
The Sailfish - the fastest fish in the oceans. This fish can swim for long distances at 40mph and has been clocked at 70mph. | Source
The Greyhound is the second fastest accelerating land animal in the world behind the Cheetah.
The Greyhound is the second fastest accelerating land animal in the world behind the Cheetah. | Source
The tiger beetle can sprint at 5.6mph. Relative to body length, the beetle would be moving at around 480mph if scaled up to human size!
The tiger beetle can sprint at 5.6mph. Relative to body length, the beetle would be moving at around 480mph if scaled up to human size! | Source
The Springbok may be slower than the Cheetah, but can keep up its' top speed (50mph) over long distances.
The Springbok may be slower than the Cheetah, but can keep up its' top speed (50mph) over long distances. | Source
The fastest snake in the world - the Black Mamba. This reptile can strike at up to 12mph.
The fastest snake in the world - the Black Mamba. This reptile can strike at up to 12mph. | Source

The Fastest Animal in the Sea

The Sailfish has a top speed matching that of the Cheetah - 70mph. The sailfish can flick its tail back and forth hundreds of times during a chase to consume fish or squid. The top speed is maximised with a stiffened, tapered body and a large, retractable dorsal fin to reduce the effects of drag. A flexible spine also allows the sailfish to generate increased thrust through the rapid curves it bends its torso into during a chase.

The Fastest Insect on Earth

The speediest insect on our planet is the Tiger beetle - a fast and agile predator common to brownfield sites. With large eyes and huge mandibles, it is clear that this beetle is a hunter. Unusually for insects, the tiger beetle is as fast on the wing as it is on foot - with reaction times comparable to the house fly (widely considered one of the fastest reacting animal on the planet). Whilst a top speed of 5.6mph (8.4kph) may not seem fast, compared to body length these animals are around 22 times faster than humans.

Fastest Animals in Slow Motion

List of the Fastest Animals on Earth

Animal
Speed (mph)
Speed (kph)
Peregrine Falcon
200
322
Spine-tailed Swift
106
171
Cheetah
71
114
Sailfish
68
110
Springbok
50
80
Marlin
50
80
Lion
45
72
Spiny-tailed Iguana
21
34
Black Mamba
12
20
Tiger Beetle
5.6
8.4
Cockroach
3.4
5.4
A selection of the fastest birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and insects on our planet

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    • profile image

      KHALID 24 months ago

      I think a cheetah Could beat a falcon

    • BlissfulWriter profile image

      BlissfulWriter 5 years ago

      Very interesting. We humans are not so fast, unless we ride in one of our many vehicles that we have invented.

    • TFScientist profile image
      Author

      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      @alliemacb: Thanks :) This hub was a lot of fun - I particularly love the slow motion shots of high speed animals. I've seen a Peregrine flown at a bird show - they are unbelievable fast, even when not in a stoop.

    • alliemacb profile image

      alliemacb 5 years ago from Scotland

      Fascinating hub and I love the table at the bottom. Some of these animals move at incredible speeds. Voted up and awesome