What Is the Fastest Animal in the World?

iStock
iStock

People seem to have an innate fascination with speed. We like to watch high-performance cars circle tracks—or tempt speed limits on highways ourselves—and celebrate Olympic athletes like Usain Bolt, who probably is the fastest man on two feet at the moment.

That curiosity often extends beyond machines and elite athletic competition. What has nature done to gift certain animals with enough momentum to overcome prey? And is there really such a thing as the fastest animal in the world?

If all we really want to determine is which animal can cover the distance from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time, then that lingering fact you may have heard about cheetahs is true. The sinewy cat found mainly in Africa can hit speeds of 64 mph, roughly the speed limit of many major U.S. highways. (Other studies have pegged it at 58 mph.)

That’s under ideal conditions. Normally, cheetahs sprint because they’re after dinner, and if that dinner tries to evade capture, the cheetah will need to stop and resume speed often to keep up. Because of the unpredictable nature of their prey, a cheetah often keeps its speed closer to 33 mph.

When we associate the fastest animal in the world with linear forward movement on land, the cheetah is probably going to come out on top. But not all animals use limbs to propel themselves vertically. The falcon, for example, takes advantage of gravity to descend on prey from above. Like free-falling parachutists, falcons have been known to reach high speeds on descent. The higher the starting point, the more speed they can achieve: One peregrine falcon that began at 15,000 feet (thanks to some human help) reached 183 mph.

The cheetah is also outperformed in water by the sailfish, which can reach speeds of 68 mph when they're breaching waves. For context, a sailfish could swim 200 meters in just 10 seconds; Michael Phelps would need well over a minute to cover the same distance. Killer whales can swim 34 mph—incredibly speedy considering their heft.

Asking which is the fastest animal in the world is a tricky question. Humans tend to think of "fast" in relation to the linear movement we see in racing, but fast can mean a variety of things in the wild. While you may never see most of these animals shift into gear in person, at least one domesticated creature can hit the gas: The greyhound tops out at 43 mph.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What Happened to the Physical Copy of Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' Speech?

AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

What is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

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