The tortoise beat the hare in the race, as the age-old fable goes. But that unexpected victory is a tale that can only exist in storybooks, because with top speeds of 80 to 112km/h, the fastest animals will always leave the rest in the dust.
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Over the years, scientists have been trying to pin down how to predict the speed of certain animals without watching them run, fly or swim. For instance, how would it be possible to compare the speed of a running animal to a swimming one? Or to accurately estimate the top speed of the tyrannosaurus rex? And would a larger animal always run faster than a smaller one because it was able to take longer strides? Working out the formula to predict animals’ speed is a difficult undertaking.
But according to an August 2017 report published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, ecologists at the University of Göttingen in Germany successfully created a new way to predict the speed of all kinds of animals. They found that the basic underlying factor was how long it took the animal to accelerate.
The acceleration time, according to the study, depends on the animal’s body mass and the method it uses to move (running or swimming, for instance). So, larger animals may start out ahead of the rest, but run out of steam faster because they exhaust their muscles more quickly when accelerating.
In the case of the world’s fastest animal – the cheetah – cleat-like claws for traction, a 22-foot stride, and a flexible spine are three things that give it the perfect body for speed. But, just like the fastest fish – the marlin – the cheetah is a mid-sized animal, and is able to use its maximum speed more efficiently during travel, rather than use a higher proportion of it right at the start of the sprint.
Currently, Sarah the cheetah, from Cincinnati Zoo in the US, holds the world record for the fastest 100m dash. In 2012, at the age of 11, she clocked a time of 5.95 seconds, making Olympic world record holder Usain Bolt’s 9.58 seconds seem positively sluggish. Sarah’s record-breaking sprint is the fastest timed 100-metre ever run by anything on the planet.