You’ve probably heard a lot of hype around the cheetah being the fastest animal. Heck, if you search “fastest animal” you’ll probably get one of those banners that’ll tell you the answer is the cheetah. You fool, you thought the subject would be more interesting than your childhood conventions, cheetahs can go over 60 miles per hour (121 km per hour) and go from 0-60 in less than 3 seconds. Now leave the internet and forget that you ever searched “what is the fastest animal?”
Except it’s never that simple, which you probably figured out because we’re making a post about it.
Being on land is a pretty strong restriction–there’s a reason why wanting to fly is a fairly common desired superpower. So you probably aren’t going to be surprised to learn that something that flies exceeds the speed of the cheetah. Both in relative terms, and concrete terms.
Something we care about when it comes to feats is how they stack up in relation to others. After all, it’s a lot more impressive when your dog or cat figures out how to open a door than it is for you to just open it. When it comes to speed, we’re looking at body lengths per second. It’s what it sounds like, how many times can you go as far as you are long in one second.
In case you were wondering how the cheetah stacks up in this regard, cheetahs come in at 16 body lengths per second. Which, while the fastest land animal and mammal, will seem paltry in a second.
Things That Fly
So we come in with the peregrine falcon, hitting over 240 miles per hour (386 km per hour) when they dive. Even if we take the longest peregrine falcons at about 2 feet long, they’re still hitting 186 body lengths per second. That would be like the average person sprinting at over 380 miles per hour.
Peregrine falcons also remain incredibly maneuverable in flight, able to not only hit their prey, but hit their prey when it’s moving. Which is a bit of a no-brainer, your prey won’t be standing still. A simple way to intercept a moving target is to do a lot of math. Figure out how fast they’re going, how fast you can go, and then go in a straight line to where you hit the target. Obviously, this assumes you’re trying to hit something that’s also going in a straight line without being able to turn.
If you’ve ever tried to make a sharp turn while going fast and maintain your speed, this is no simple feat. Even going in a straight line at high speed isn’t easy (which peregrine falcons can do, duh), ask a Formula 1 driver and they’ll probably tell you steering straight at 200+ miles per hour is nowhere near as simple as it sounds on paper. Anyway even outside of going in a straight line (already impressive), falcons can still make adjustments on the fly.
The Relative Fastest
While 186 body lengths per second is an impressive feat from the peregrine falcon, they don’t reign supreme when it comes to relative speed.
Tiger beetles aren’t faster than peregrine falcons in relation to their size, the Australian variety coming in at around 170 body lengths per second and coming in between 5 and 6 miles per hour. They’re the fastest insect so it’s nothing to gawk at, but we wanted to bring it up because they, unlike the falcon, can only go in straight lines. Not even through the power of math, though–they just don’t have the option. At their top speeds, they’re literally moving faster than their tiny bug brains can process visual information. They go so fast they go blind.
Which is why when watching them chase prey, you’ll see them stop, turn, and then go again.
But the fastest organism in body lengths per second is a Southern California mite; Paratarsotomus marcopalpis. At only 0.7 millimeters in length their 0.5 mile per hour top speed is a lot more impressive. Because it’s over 320 body lengths per second, which would be like you running over 1,300 miles per hour.
We’re bad at going fast so let’s just look at fast food and pretend it’s the same thing here.