The 10 Fastest Animals in the World

iStock
iStock

Though humans love to assign superlatives—smartest, fastest, strongest—to the creatures of the animal kingdom, those attributes are, in practice, pretty difficult to measure. There are stories of sailfish traveling at 68 mph, for example, but they date to the 1940s and '50s; since then, scientists have determined that anything faster than 33 mph is likely impossible and would lead to "destructive consequences for fin tissues." Old record breaking numbers might be inflated by everything from high wind speeds to inaccurate methodology—not to mention the difficulty of determining the top speed of animals that may or may not be going full out when measured, or the lack of measuring all animals all the time (which means that there still might be record breakers out there). But of the measurements that have been done—and with those caveats in mind—scientists have determined that these 10 creatures are good candidates for the fastest animals on Earth.

10. QUARTER HORSE // 55 MPH

A tan-colored horse running with its mane flying out behind it.
iStock

At the lower end of the list there are several animals that run around the same speed. One of these is the quarter horse, which is generally faster than its more famous thoroughbred relatives—at least over short distances like a quarter mile. And the differences can be pronounced: One study found that over various races of various distances the quarter horse averaged 45 miles per hour, while the thoroughbred averaged only 35 mph—although the thoroughbred generally ran longer races. More impressively, the quarter horse was able to manage over 55 mph near the end of the race [PDF].

9. SPRINGBOK // 60 MPH

A springbok jumping high above yellow grass.
iStock

According to recent research, the black wildebeest has unusual muscle fibers that allow it to run at high speeds for long distances. It's thought that the springbok—which is related to the wildebeest—may also have these fibers, which allows them to escape predators on the African Savannah.

8. PRONGHORN // APPROXIMATELY 40-62 MPH

A pronghorn running.
iStock

The pronghorn is frequently cited as the second fastest land animal on Earth, although many of those speed estimates are based on studies from the 1940s [PDF], when researchers proposed they could run at around 60 mph. Other observations have put pronghorns running almost seven miles in just 10 minutes, which works out to 40 mph.

7. ANNA'S HUMMINGBIRD // 61 MPH

An Anna's hummingbird in flight.
iStock

This little critter can travel at 61 mph for short distances during mating dives. That fact alone is impressive, but this hummingbird is a good candidate for fastest vertebrate by body lengths per second. According to a 2009 paper, it can reach speeds of 385 body lengths per second (that figure doesn't factor in the avian's .59-inch bill; factoring that in reduces the speed to around 320 bl/s). By comparison, the space shuttle reentering the atmosphere travels at around 207 bl/s. For a blue whale to match this hummingbird's relative speed, it would have to circle the entire planet in about an hour.

6. CHEETAH // 65 MPH

A cheetah running.
iStock

The top speed of a cheetah is extremely difficult to determine. One of the fastest reliable records was obtained by a conservationist and the cheetah he'd raised. He attached some meat behind his vehicle and took off, and the cat gave chase, clocking approximately 64 mph over the trials. Meanwhile, a cheetah from the Cincinnati Zoo managed 61 mph in 2012. But these numbers aren't indicative of wild cheetah speed: When scientists put GPS collars on wild cheetahs, they found that although one reached 59 mph, the average top speed was just 33 mph, because it's easier to maneuver at slower speeds.

5. COMMON SWIFT // 70 MPH

A common swift flying.
iStock

Many sources claim that the fastest bird in level flight is the white-throated needletail, sometimes called the spine-tailed swift. But there's no evidence for the methodology behind determining the record, so it's rarely considered valid. So this spot belongs to another swift: One specimen of common swift was observed flying at almost 70 mph.

4. GRAY-HEADED ALBATROSS // APPROXIMATELY 80 MPH

A gray-headed albatross flying.
iStock

The official Guinness World Record for fastest bird in level flight, however, doesn't go to the common swift. It goes to the gray-headed albatross, specifically one gray-headed albatross that got caught in an Antarctic storm. The paper detailing this record holder explained that "typical air speed of small albatrosses flying with a tail wind is [20±9 miles per hour], that speed being relatively constant with increasing wind force" and noted that the bird seemed to have a 40 to 50 mph tailwind. Audubon summarized this as "the equivalent of avian steroids."

3. HYBOMITRA HINEI WRIGHTI // APPROXIMATELY 90 MPH (WE THINK)

A horse fly sitting on a rock.
iStock

According to an article published in Discover in 2000, an entomologist at the University of Florida attempted to recreate the mating behavior of the Hybomitra hinei wrighti horsefly. Males of this species chase and catch the females, and together they fall to the ground. To simulate this, the researcher fired a plastic pellet from an air rifle; the male horsefly chased the pellet, reaching speeds of at least 90 mph. Since then, little research has been done on the subject, and the result is noted as being "a noteworthy record" in "the unrefereed literature."

2. BRAZILIAN FREE-TAILED BATS // 100 MPH (MAYBE)

iStock

According to a 2016 paper, all seven of the Brazilian free-tailed bats studied traveled faster than 55 mph. Five hit almost 70 mph and one flew 100 miles per hour, making it potentially the fastest flying animal in the world. Some scientists that spoke to New Scientist were skeptical of the record, however, saying that the bats may have had gravity or wind assists, but the authors of the study expressed confidence in their results.

1. PEREGRINE FALCON // 200+ MPH

A peregrine falcon flying.
iStock

It's often said that the peregrine falcon can fly around 200 mph, which isn't the entire story. In level flight, the peregrine falcon is usually thought to max out at 40 to 60 mph—fast, but not ridiculously so. It reaches its top speed by falling in a specialized hunting dive called a stoop.

(This may seem like a bit of a cheat—extreme human skydivers can go considerably faster, and if diving speed for all other creatures were counted, this list would be almost entirely birds. A paper published in 2001 [PDF] looked at several dive speeds of just passerine birds and found a barn swallow that dived at 117 mph, a yellow wagtail diving at 118, and a pied flycatcher diving at 120 mph.)

For years, there was suspicion of this top speed, and in the 1990s, some researchers pegged the birds at a more reasonable stoop speed of 90 miles per hour. It wasn't until the 2000s that a researcher began skydiving with a peregrine falcon. Together they were diving at speeds well in excess of 200 mph. But because this is a dive, the title of fastest animal on Earth is still open to debate.

The Horrors of Anglerfish Mating

Masaki Miya et al. "Evolutionary history of anglerfishes (Teleostei: Lophiiformes): a mitogenomic perspective," BMC Evolutionary Biology 10, article number: 58 (2010), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Masaki Miya et al. "Evolutionary history of anglerfishes (Teleostei: Lophiiformes): a mitogenomic perspective," BMC Evolutionary Biology 10, article number: 58 (2010), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

When you think of an anglerfish, you probably think of something like the creature above: Big mouth. Gnarly teeth. Lure bobbing from its head. Endless nightmares. 

During the 19th century, when scientists began to discover, describe, and classify anglerfish from a particular branch of the anglerfish family tree—the suborder Ceratioidei—that’s what they thought of, too. The problem was that they were only seeing half the picture. The specimens that they were working with were all female, and they had no idea where the males were or what they looked like. Researchers sometimes found some other fish that seemed to be related based on their body structure, but they lacked the fearsome maw and lure typical of ceratioids and were much smaller—sometimes only as long as 6 or 7 millimeters—and got placed into separate taxonomic groups.

It wasn’t until the 1920s—almost a full century after the first ceratioid was entered into the scientific record—that things started to become a little clearer. In 1922, Icelandic biologist Bjarni Saemundsson discovered a female ceratioid with two of these smaller fish attached to her belly by their snouts. He assumed it was a mother and her babies, but was puzzled by the arrangement.

“I can form no idea of how, or when, the larvae, or young, become attached to the mother. I cannot believe that the male fastens the egg to the female,” he wrote. “This remains a puzzle for some future researchers to solve.”

When Saemundsson kicked the problem down the road, it was Charles Tate Regan, working at the British Museum of Natural History in 1924, who picked it up. Regan also found a smaller fish attached to a female ceratioid. When he dissected it, he realized it wasn’t a different species or the female angler’s child. It was her mate.

The “missing” males had been there all along, just unrecognized and misclassified, and Regan and other scientists, like Norwegian zoologist Albert Eide Parr, soon figured out why the male ceratioids looked so different. They don’t need lures or big mouths and teeth because they don’t hunt, and they don’t hunt because they have the females. The ceratioid male, Regan wrote, is “merely an appendage of the female, and entirely dependent on her for nutrition.” In other words, a parasite.

When ceratioid males go looking for love, they follow a species-specific pheromone to a female, who will often aid their search further by flashing her bioluminescent lure. Once the male finds a suitable mate, he bites into her belly and latches on until his body fuses with hers. Their skin joins together, and so do their blood vessels, which allows the male to take all the nutrients he needs from his host/mate’s blood. The two fish essentially become one.

With his body attached to hers like this, the male doesn't have to trouble himself with things like seeing or swimming or eating like a normal fish. The body parts he doesn’t need anymore—eyes, fins, and some internal organs—atrophy, degenerate, and wither away, until he’s little more than a lump of flesh hanging from the female, taking food from her and providing sperm whenever she’s ready to spawn.

Extreme size differences between the sexes and parasitic mating aren’t found in all anglerfish. Throughout the other suborders, there are males that are free-swimming their whole lives, that can hunt on their own and that only attach to the females temporarily to reproduce before moving along. For deep-sea ceratioids that might only rarely bump into each other in the abyss, though, the weird mating ritual is a necessary adaptation to keep mates close at hand and ensure that there will always be more little anglerfish. And for us, it’s something to both marvel and cringe at, a reminder that the natural world is often as strange as any fiction we can imagine.

Naturalist William Beebe put it nicely in 1938, writing, “But to be driven by impelling odor headlong upon a mate so gigantic, in such immense and forbidding darkness, and willfully eat a hole in her soft side, to feel the gradually increasing transfusion of her blood through one’s veins, to lose everything that marked one as other than a worm, to become a brainless, senseless thing that was a fish—this is sheer fiction, beyond all belief unless we have seen the proof of it.”

This Automatic Fetch Machine Will Keep Your Dog Occupied When You Don't Have Time to Play

iFetch
iFetch

Every dog owner knows that it's impossible to keep up with a pooch that's always looking to play. But if you want to keep them active while still having time for yourself, there's the iFetch, a toy that will automatically throw tennis balls, allowing your canine to play fetch whenever they please.

You can find the iFetch Original, which is ideal for small or medium dogs, on Amazon for $115. The Original can either be charged with an AC adapter or run on six C batteries, both of which are included. You can adjust the settings on the iFetch to throw the ball 10, 20, or 30 feet, making it perfect for indoor or outdoor play. Once it's charged and the distance is set, let your canine drop a tennis ball into the machine and it will take care of the rest.

If you have a large dog, look for the iFetch Too, which is available on Amazon for $200. This model has a rechargeable battery that can last up to 300 throws. This model can launch the ball 10, 24, or 40 feet, and it also comes with a custom option, so you’ll find room for your dog to play no matter how much space is available.

If your dog loves their new toy, but you don't love finding slobbery tennis balls around the house, check out the company’s medium- and small-size slobber-proof balls.

It may take time for your canine to learn how to use the toy, but the company has some training tips from Nicole Ellis, a certified professional dog trainer. To start, it's recommended that your dog knows the “drop it” command. If they don’t, check out their training tips here. After your dog has mastered that command, the company has plenty of tricks, such as keeping training sessions short and ending them on a positive note. For more ideas, check out their page.

Once you set up your iFetch and watch your furry friend run back and forth, you may start to wonder why they like fetch so much. According to research on the subject, when dogs exercise, neurotransmitters stimulate reward regions in their brain, which is much like when humans experience a "runner's high."

If you happen to notice your canine seems particularly athletic while they are chasing the ball back and forth, check out these other sports they can play.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER