You Can’t Win a Race Against a Cheat-ah

When thinking of the fastest animals that roam the planet naturally a few mammals immediately come to mind such as the cheetahs, lions and wildebeests. But where do humans rank amongst these four-legged speedsters? Before we begin to rank animals on speed, it is important to consider what exactly makes an animal fast, and which specific evolutionary adaptions have helped these animals in their respective environments.

Beginning with the most associated animal with speed- the cheetah. What makes the cheetah so fast isn’t simply because they have evolved some special kind of fast twitch muscle fibers, but a few anatomic adaptions that have enabled them to sprint speeds up to 80mph. Cheetahs utilize their backs as extensions of their hind legs, something we humans are obviously incapable of due to only having one set of legs. The spines of cheetahs are the longest of any bug cat, which extend as the hind feet come up. The spine is utilized as a coiled spring when in motion, pushing forward the cheetah with each stride. Cheetahs are also relatively lightweight, weighing anywhere from 50-160 pounds. Also an expanded nasal cavity allows for more oxygen to enter the cheetah, allowing for increased blood flow to the muscles.

While the cheetah may hold the title of fastest on land, the Peregrine Falcon holds the title for not only the fastest bird, but also the fastest member of the animal kingdom. Top diving speeds can go to as high an astonishing 242 mph for this creature. What sets this bird apart from its fellow avian are its uniquely pointed wings and stiff flight feathers that help them to cut through the air as they dive. They also have tubercles, which are tiny bony cones that stick out from the bird’s nostrils. These tubercles help slow the air around their beaks, allowing for normal breathing when traveling through the air.

Underwater the black marlin and sailfish take the crown, as they can reach speeds ranging from 60-80mph. With a broad and heavily built body, alongside a long bill the black marlin and sailfish are not overly anatomically diverse from other fish, other than size. However adaptions in active muscles in the front of the body which curve while swimming, alongside a reversed tail motion help the fish to cut through the water with low resistance and high speed. The long bill is the key adaption that helps to cut water resistance when traveling great speeds.
Despite not having these specific adaptions to help our speeds, humans are terrific endurance runners. According to Harvard physiological anthropologist Daniel Lieberman, humans began developing adaptions and specifications for endurance running. Leg tendons are utilized in strides and store energy for each subsequent step. Humans had never utilized speed as a primary method of hunting or prey; therefore it makes sense that according to evolutionary history our muscle adaptions are set primarily for scavenging. While humans are capable of considerable speed, up to 29 mph, these fast twitch muscles do not last for a long period of time.


  • Reynolds, Gretchen. “Phys Ed: What Runners Can Learn From Cheetahs.” New York Times 3 July 2012: D6(L). Science in Context.
  • “The Peregrine Falcon.” (1993): n. pag. Earth Rangers. Web.
  • “Living on Earth: Fastest Natural Flier.” Living on Earth 22 June 2012. Science in Context.
  • Zimmer, Carl. “Faster than a hyena? Running may make humans special: scientists propose that hominids evolved into long-distance runners 2 million years ago to become better scavengers on the African savanna.” Science 306.5700 (2004): 1283. Science in Context.

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Biology Teacher

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