How fast can a cheetah run?

If you’re looking for the Ferraris of the animal kingdom, look no further than cheetahs, the world’s fastest land mammals. Their long, slender bodies and hard foot pads help them accelerate from zero to 60 mph in just three seconds. That makes them marginally slower than Formula 1 cars, which take about 2.6 seconds.

Other big cats can fully retract their claws, but cheetahs, like dogs, can’t. That’s because their semi-retractable claws stabilise them, helping them gain traction, like the spikes in a running shoe. As for fuel? A large cavity inside the nose means these purring carnivores easily gulp in oxygen.

Cheetahs hunt mostly when it’s light, but they don’t race at top speed for longer than about 30 seconds. After these slinky stalkers have got as close to their prey as they dare, they rev into action: long, muscular tails acting like rudders, provide counterbalance; flexible spines allow them to twist and swerve across the African grasslands as they pursue hares, birds, warthogs, and antelope.

The chase is short-lived. In under a minute, it’s usually over, then – you guessed it! – eating starts.

Endurance winner

For speed and endurance, the pronghorn scores first place on the podium. These reddish-brown, three- to five-foot-tall herbivores are one of the fastest creatures in North America, able to cruise for miles at 45 mph. Even their young’uns can outrun humans within days of birth! What’s more, if they encounter a hungry cougar or bear, these cud-chewers put their pedal to the metal, accelerating to 55 mph. Predators are left, literally, in the dust.

Speed isn’t just a land animal thing, either. With their magnificent, almost body-length dorsal fins, sailfish are underwater sprinters, estimated to swim at up to 68 mph. That’s more than ten times faster than Michael Phelps ever swam!

Close on their tails, swordfish are thought to be able to achieve 60 mph as they chase mackerel, squid, and marine invertebrates. The colossal pace of these rapier-wielding predators is made possible by a gland in their necks, which secretes oil through pores dotted over their heads. Not only does the oil lubricate, but it also repels water and allows it to flow smoothly over the fish’s distinctive pointed ‘bill’, reducing drag.

They’ve got wings!

Effortlessly suited to their airy element, peregrine falcons are aerodynamic marvels. Their stiff, swept-back wings give them a streamlined shape and they’re able to breathe effortlessly at 200 mph! Like modern missiles, they constantly adjust their wing position and speed as they ‘stoop’ from awe-inspiring heights on unsuspecting doves, pigeons and songbirds, talons outstretched …

It’s no accident, either, that all these zippy critters are medium-sized. In fact, while in theory they should be outrun, outflown, or outswimmed by larger species, reality tells another story. Beefy big guys may have more of the right type of muscle but, there’s a BUT. These muscles run out of oxygen – and therefore energy – before they come close to what could be their top speeds. Muscles of medium-sized species that are smaller take longer to tire, and that’s what gives them their edge.

A word about appendages

While they’ll never be Red Bull Racing contenders, some species boast lightning-fast body parts. For instance, colour-changing chameleons, like the tiny Rhampholeon spinosus, an EDGE species from Tanzania, rely on their tongues to catch insects. The tongues have a kind of elastic tissue and are kept coiled up, ready to spring into action. When the right moment – or bug – buzzes along, the chameleons release their tongue muscles. The astonishing appendage springs forward: an acceleration of zero to 60 mph in 1/100th of a second.

Competing in a similar league is the peacock Mantis shrimp, which, though on the small side, packs nature’s most powerful punch. This meat-loving marine crustacean has spring-loaded front ‘arms’, which it can release at 50 mph, 50 times faster than humans can blink! A potentially fascinating creature to cross paths with, except if you’re a hermit crab or mollusc.

Built for Comfort?

Of course, not every species wants or needs to live life in the fast lane. Certainly not tortoises, sloths, or manatees. These bulky, herbivorous sea cows swim at 5 mph without worrying excessively about predators because their unwieldy size and tough skin make them near-impossible to eat. Similarly, Greenland sharks move at a staggeringly slow 0.76 mph, without finding their pace a disadvantage. The reason? Stealth. They sneak up on unsuspecting prey while they’re snoozing. Who knew?!

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