Skip Navigation

Species Search:

Nature Watch: Everything from Armadillos to Zebra Butterflies

Peregrine Falcon, adult
© George H. Harrison

Animal Olympics

Athleticism, speed, strength, power, endurance: Humans celebrate these attributes in such events as the Olympic Games, but in the animal kingdom, they are necessary for survival. Animals perform amazing feats every day, not with the purpose of winning or being named the best, but in order to eat, mate, escape predators, and endure the elements.

The Cheetah is said to be the fastest-running mammal on earth, with a top sprinting speed of 70 miles per hour (mph). Why does it run so fast? To catch the fleet-footed gazelles and antelopes on which it feeds. In its natural habitat in Africa, the Cheetah can outrun its fleetest prey. Like human sprinters, it cannot sprint at top speed for long and must take down its prey within a distance of about 300 yards. If the Cheetah lived in North America, it might meet its match. The Pronghorn antelope has been clocked at close to 70 mph and can run for long distances at 30 to 45 mph. Interestingly enough, these two animals run these top speeds for different reasons: the Cheetah runs in pursuit, while the Pronghorn runs to escape.

The Peregrine Falcon is widely acknowledged to be the fastest moving bird, achieving astonishing speeds when it dives for prey. Some sources say it can top 200 mph, while others put the figure at about 120 mph. Either way, it would be hard for any other bird to escape it. On foot, the fastest bird is the Ostrich, which can run about 40 mph. It outpaces the Greater Roadrunner, North America's fastest running bird, which tops out at about 25 mph. Coyotes, incidentally, can also outrun roadrunners with a cruising speed of 25-30 mph and a top speed of 40 mph.

The Olympic Marathon, a paltry 26 miles, doesn't come close to the marathons some animals endure. Take the Arctic Tern, for instance. It migrates between the North and South Poles, covering a distance of as much as 30,000 miles each and every year. Some birds spend most of their lives in flight. Swifts, for example, have very underdeveloped legs and live almost entirely on the wing. Some seabirds, such as the Sooty Tern, fly for years without landing. The Wandering Albatross is named for its propensity to fly thousands of miles on feeding trips.

Fish can make long-distance migrations as well. Some salmon, swimming between the ocean and the rivers in which they spawn, cover 2,000 miles. European Eels are said to swim up to 3,700 miles to reach their breeding grounds in the Sargasso Sea located in the Atlantic Ocean.

The great annual migration of wildebeests and zebras in the African Serengeti covers about 2,000 miles. But the longest annual migration by a mammal is the 10,000-mile circuit made by the Gray Whale from the Arctic to its warm winter calving areas and back again.

The Sperm Whale is generally acknowledged to be the deepest diving mammal, but the Northern Bottlenose Whale is not far behind. The Sperm Whale is known to dive a mile (5,280 feet) or deeper and to stay under for more than 2 hours. The Bottlenose is said to dive at least 5,000 feet and is also able to remain submerged for 2 hours. If the two were competing in an Olympic event, the odds would be about even.

There is little competition for the deepest diving bird, the Emperor Penguin, which can dive to a depth of 1,770 feet. Outside of the penguin family, the Thick-billed Murre may be one of the Emperor's nearest competitors; it is thought to dive to 600-700 feet. Dovekies (300 feet), Loons (250 feet), Atlantic Puffins (160 feet), and Long-tailed Ducks (130 feet) are all superb divers but are no match for the Emperor Penguin.

Some types of kangaroos can leap a distance of 30 feet. White-tailed Deer, when bounding, can cover almost the same distance. But the long-jump champion is probably the inch-long Southern Cricket Frog, which makes leaps of more than 60 times its body length.

As for the high jump, the Red Kangaroo can hurdle a 10-foot fence. North America's White-tailed Deer can hurdle an obstacle 8 1/2 feet high. Those leapers have got nothing on the lowly spittlebug though, which jumps 115 times its body height. The deer and kangaroo would have to jump about 600 feet to compete with the spittlebug!

No animal on earth can lift as much weight as the African Elephant, which can pick up a one-ton weight with its trunk. Relative to body size, however, the elephant doesn't even come close to the strongest animal on earth. What is it? The Rhinoceros Beetle. This rather strange-looking little creature can carry 850 times its own body weight. The elephant, carrying only one-fourth of its body weight, isn't even close in this contest.

At the Olympic Games, the fastest runners, highest jumpers, and most skillful divers win medals and worldwide acclaim. In the animal world, no medals are awarded, and individuals don't often achieve fame for their accomplishments. Rather, the amazing athletic feats performed by animals enable them to escape danger, catch food, impress a mate . . . and to live another day.

Learn more about our amazingly athletic animals by browsing eNature's Online Field Guides or by taking a free online course from our friends at the National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife University.