Speed is a funny thing. We tend to talk about it in terms of miles, or kilometers, per hour, but that metric tends to skew our perception of reality a bit. For example, the average human can run somewhere around 7 miles per hour. Does that mean the average human can run 7 miles in an hour? No. Speed is a snapshot. It’s a rate. Speed, quite literally, is an equation: distance/time.
In 2009, runner Usain Bolt broke the human barrier that was possible when he reached a peak speed of 27.5 miles per hour during his world-record-setting 100-meter dash in 2009. The aptly named Bolt broke and set the record, but make no mistake, his time at that speed was brief.
Don’t get me wrong, humans sure can sprint, but how do we measure up against our cousins across the animal kingdom? Let’s explore the *Earth’s top 20 fastest animals.
Lions may live in prides, but speed is where their pride takes a hit. Don’t get me wrong, 50 mph (80 kph) is still super impressive. It’s just not quite fast enough to earn them the top spot. Lions, like many large predators, may be speedy, but slacking in stamina. 50 mph is top speed and only achievable in short bursts.
Whatever lions may be lacking in speed, they make up for in leaps, topping out at 36 feet (11 meters)! That’s roughly the length of a school bus!
So, why are so many predators so fast? Why else? To catch their food! Ranking in at number 19 is the Blue Wildebeest. These cousins of cattle sure live up to their name, reaching lengths of 8 feet and heights of 4.5 feet. Essentially, they’re jacked-up antelopes that travel in massive herds (herds that are dwindling drastically over the past few centuries).
The wildebeest provides a strong challenge to any would-be predators, in strength, sheer speed, and staggering stamina.
The American Quarter Horse is a breed of horse that excels at sprinting, much like many of our world’s fastest. If you’re not familiar, sprinting refers to super-fast speeds over super short distances (typically). IS the American Quarter Horse some super-powered Equine Hybrid that’s only a quarter horse? Not quite.
Its name actually comes from its ability to outdistance other horse breeds in races of a quarter mile or less. So, only slightly less exciting.
Next on our list, the Springbok. A small-ish antelope, in stark contrast with the Blue Wildebeest, the Springbok is only about 35 inches tall at the shoulder. Yet, they are bound to impress, nevertheless. In part, with their bounds. The Springbok has a 10-foot vertical which is roughly the height of a standard Basketball hoop. They’re also known for engaging in a behavior called pronking in which they bound about repeatedly, reaching heights of 7 feet or so each time.
When they aren’t putting all their energy into jumping around like they’re in a House of Pain music video, they can reach impressive speeds. Kind of a mandatory skill to have when you’re predators are things like cheetahs, leopards, and lions (oh, my!). Though, honestly, they aren’t exactly the first choice of many predators. I mean, how worth it is the energy of the chase if the reward is pint-sized?
FOUR UNGULATES IN A ROW! Woo-hoo! At Number 16 we have North America’s fastest land animal: The Pronghorn. They, like the previous two, can reach top speeds of around 55 mph, but it’s their sheer enduRUNce that really impresses. See what I did there?
They can hold a pace of 30 mph for 20+ miles! So, a reminder: Usain Bolt achieved 27 mph for a brief moment during a 100-meter dash. That’s 0.062 miles. A pronghorn can run that speed and faster for over 322 times that distance!
The Ostrich may be the first bird on our list, but certainly not the last. They aren’t the number bet one avian speedster, nor are they the fastest animal on land, but they are the fastest animal on two legs. As you’ve probably come to expect, 60 mph is not a speed that an ostrich can achieve for very long. In fact, this speed has only been measured in a few individuals for brief stints.
Even still, they have tremendous stamina at contextually lower speeds—one’s that still leave us hanging in the dust. These gargantuan 6 foot tall, 150-kg birds have powerful legs that have served as the design basis for cinematic velociraptors which allow them to cover 15 feet in a single stride. Ostrich can maintain a speed of nearly 40 mph for 30 minutes to an hour. That means an ostrich could potentially finish a marathon in roughly 30 minutes or so!
The Swordfish is a well-known and formidable fish with no known natural predators to fear. Well, except for the Penfish which is said to be mightier.
All jokes aside, the Swordfish is named for its pointy bills that can reach 1.5 meters in length. What most don’t know is that they’re also incredibly fast! Xiphias gladius has an estimated top speed of around 60 mph, or 100 kph, making them one of the fastest fish on Earth.
Sure, they’re sleek, aerodynamic, and muscular, but they owe their ability to push the limit to something else—oil. Scientists have discovered an organ at the base of their bill that secretes a mix of fatty acids which repel water, allowing them to cut through the water like a spoon (or a sword) through warm butter!
The Anna’s Hummingbird is not only the smallest bird in the world, it’s one of the fastest, and the fastest animal on Earth relative to body size! When you give them the credit of achieving the speeds they do at their scale via a measure of body lengths covered per second (385, by the way), they technically move faster than the space shuttle.
They achieve this speed in a dive before curving back up, experiencing up to 9 g-forces. That’s force 9 times that of gravity. So, sidebar, your weight is the combination of your mass and the force of gravity. I, at rest on the ground, weigh 200 or so pounds. At 9 g-forces I would weigh 1,800 pounds! That kind of force would make even the most seasoned fighter pilots black out. Even the shuttle to space averages 2 to 3 g-forces as it escapes the earth!
Yet, as tempted as I Am to crown the Anna’s Hummingbird the victor, we have 12 more to go.
The Sailfish has been recorded moving at speeds of just about 68 miles per hour. That’s roughly highway driving speed but through water! Sailfish are known for their large, sale-like dorsal fin, as well as their spear or sword-like bill. But these flashy physical traits are more than just for looks.
Sailfish often work in groups to disrupt large schools of fish, separating individual sardines or other small fish from the safety of the swarm. Their ability to speed up quickly, turn on a dime, jointly use their sails to “trap” their prey, and use their spear-like bills like a giant aluminum baseball bat makes them a formidable ocean predator!
Finally, we have reached the fastest on-land-animal, and the fastest feline—the cheetah. With an ability to accelerate from 0 to 60.0 mph in under three seconds, the cheetah is the fastest animal on four legs and the last non-bird on our list. Yet, as you have probably come to expect by now, what they have tremendous amounts of in speed, they lack in stamina. Cheetahs can only last at their top speeds for 20 to 30 seconds or roughly 0.3 miles.
Quick aside: don’t get me wrong, I love the big cats (any cats, really) as much as the next person, but don’t you think they’re a tad, I don’t know, overrated? Like, sure lions and cheetahs are fast but they also spend most of their time just sorta laying around in the sun like a housecat. Please don’t hate me.
The Grey-headed Albatross comes in as our tenth fastest animal and Guinness World Record holder of the fastest horizontal flier. With their 2.2-meter wingspan, these birds are giant and capable of equally gigantic feats. Not only can they reach speeds of around 79 mph (127 kph), but they can circumnavigate the entire planet in a little over a month! Not only that, but they can cover over 10,000 miles in one go and sometimes spend years at a time at sea without ever touching land.
The largest falcon in the world, with a wingspan of four feet or more, the Gyrfalcon can reach speeds of up to 80 mph during long flights. A more typical speed is around 60 mph or so, using these speeds to strike prey on the ground, rather than the air, and typically breaking their prey’s bones on impact.
The Spur-Winged Goose is technically not a goose at all, but a very large duck. One of the “True” ducks, actually. They get their name for the spurs on their wings which the males use to fight one another during the mating season. In fact, these spurs can be toxic, as can their meat! This goose loves to eat a species of poisonous beetle called the blister beetle. Instead of being poisoned by the beetle, the goose is able to store the toxin within their bodies. It’s called cantharidin, and just 10 mg can kill a human.
Most know them as Pigeons, but pigeons are actually a type of dove! The Rock Dove has been clocked flying at an average speed of 92.5 mph (148.9 kmh) during a 400-mile (640 km) race. Over longer distances, their speeds are still impressive, able to cruise at roughly 60 mph for 600 miles straight!
The frigatebird’s high speed is helped by its having the largest wing-area-to-body-weight ratio of any bird, but their speed is probably the least impressive thing about their flight. By hitching rides on warm, rising air off of the oceans and into the clouds, they are able to stay aloft for weeks (in one case, two months) at a time. Because their feathers aren’t waterproof, they can’t land in the water, so they drift in the sky instead. these birds can cover an average of 300 miles per day, riding air currents like a roller coaster.
Also known as the Brazilian Free-Tailed Bat, the Mexican Free-Tailed Bat has the fastest horizontal speed of any animal. On any given night, they may travel 100 miles in search for food and as high as 10,000 feet in the air, and they can do so while traveling up to 100 miles per hour!
Essentially the Old World Peregrine Falcon, the Eurasian Hobby is yet another freakishly fast falcon. Not only can they achieve speeds of 100 mph in a dive, but they can maneuver so well that males can pass food to females mid-flight as a part of the courtship display.
Sometimes called the storm bird and only slightly faster than their Common Swift cousins who spend upwards of 10 consecutive months in the air, the White-Throated Needletail Swift takes our number three spot on our list. The problem is, that claim isn’t entirely verified. So, are they or aren’t they that fast? Yes.
The Golden Eagle is a big bird. That being said, when considering their speed in terms of proportionality, as in body lengths per second, they can reach a rate of roughly 87. That’s equivalent to a human running roughly 262 feet per second, or 179 miles per hour. They achieve this speed only in a stoop, or dive, for a short time while snatching prey from the sky.
The Peregrine Falcon takes the title of our world’s fastest animal, able to achieve speeds of 242 miles per hour. This makes them the fastest aerial animal, fastest animal in flight, fastest bird, and fastest member of the animal kingdom. Granted, they can’t do this horizontally, but in a dive. It’s a hunting dive. The falcon soars high into the sky, locates its target (like a pigeon), and locks on. It dives at speeds exceeding 200 mph, or 186 body lengths per second, before striking their target mid-air, killing it on impact. That speed is equivalent to a human running at 560 feet per second, or 381 miles per hour!
So there you have it. Nature’s fastest creatures. Yet as was revealed time and time again, speed isn’t exactly everything. Lots of things can be fast for a moment or two. You can be fast. Your fast may be different from another fast, but it is your fast. Let’s be honest, fast is fun! When you’re moving fast you feel free, powerful, like a force of nature, even if the moment is fleeting. Even if you haven’t run for a long time, surely you remember a time when you did. A time when you went all out, feeling the air cool on your face, the breeze in your hair, hearing the low whistling hum of the wind in your ears, finding yourself floating in the air between each and every step like a fledgling on its first flight.
You know, I got the idea for this while I was out on a run actually. I used to be fast, and I mean really fast. But, as the years have progressed, I’ve lost quite a bit of that speed. I go through cycles, too. Sometimes I am disciplined. I stick to a strict regimen. I don’t just run; I train. Sometimes I go weeks, even months, without hitting the pavement at a pace greater than that of a casual stroll around Target.
The point that I’m ironically very slowly getting to is this: speed isn’t everything. Speed is useful, it can be fun, but running, like life itself, is only about winning when you decide it is. The truly impressive feat is the endurance that coincides with many of our speedsters. At the risk of sounding cliche, which has become a cliche thing to say in and of itself, endurance is defined as to remain in existence. I for one think that’s beautiful in its powerful simplicity. To endure is to remain, to holdfast, to persist, to continue in your state of motion despite whatever forces are acting against you.
Of course, for many of our contenders, endurance isn’t merely an impressive physical feat but a testament to survival. It’s a tool molded by eons of natural selection, allowing not just individuals to remain in existence, but entire species.
When you run, not at a sprint but at a steady, constant effort, no matter how easy or hard, you are allowing yourself to do something wonderful. You are engaging in the race of life. A race that isn’t won through speed, a race without a finish line, a race where the sole purpose is to remain racing. In modern life, not many of us need to run for survival anymore. We’re not escaping some imminent threat. Those of us who run run for health, for fun, for contests, for play, or for avoiding the rain. But every time we do, every time that pace between our steps quickens and our arms come loose at our sides, you have an opportunity that isn’t easy to come by nowadays. An opportunity to be in touch with your evolutionary past. An opportunity to let yourself free and move because that’s what your body was molded to do. An opportunity to engage in the primal evolutionary calling that is to endure.
* Okay, so this asterisk is super far from the point of reference, but that’s okay. Basically, I asterisked the title of this blog because the order in some cases is up for debate, as is the potential inclusion of other animals or exclusion of some as well. Accounts vary, different sources list different things at times, and the world is one big confusing place. Bottom line, many animals are quite fast, and definitely faster than we’ll ever be 🙂
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The Wild Life was created in January of 2017 by, me, Devon Bowker (He/They) after finishing my degree in wildlife biology. It’s been amazing to see how things have changed over the past 5 years, both personally and here. I have tons of ideas and projects in the works and cannot wait to share them with you. Whether you’re a long-time follower or new to The Wild Life, thank you for being here.