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15 Animal Superlatives

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While just about every creature in the animal kingdom has some fascinating characteristic, only some can reign supreme when it comes to measurable grandeur. Earning distinction as the fastest, largest, loudest, or longest-living critter on the planet is no mean feat, and those denizens of the land, sea, and sky that have earned these superlatives deserve due recognition!

1. FASTEST ANIMALS

The cheetah is often credited with this honor, though the swift African cat—which can reach speeds of approximately 75 miles per hour—is only the fastest land animal. In fact, the black marlin, generally considered to be the fastest-swimming fish, beats this rate: It clocks in at about 80 miles per hour. But topping both by a wide margin is the peregrine falcon, the fastest animal known to man, which has been measured to fly as fast as 242 miles per hour.

2. SLOWEST ANIMALS

The other side of the equation can be just as impressive. The slowest known flier is the American woodcock, which floats by at only 5 miles per hour. However, that’s practically lightning-fast compared to the average speeds of the sloth—the slowest land animal, which skulks about at .15 miles per hour—and the dwarf seahorse—the slowest sea creature with a typical speed of only 5 feet per hour!

3. SMALLEST ANIMALS

Even after distinguishing animals from living creatures like microorganisms, the question of smallest is a complicated one. The tiniest mammal, for instance, could be either the Etruscan Pygmy shrew, which weighs in as lightest in its class at an average of 1.9 grams, or the bumblebee bat, which is slightly heavier (averaging 2 grams) but measures about a quarter of an inch shorter at 1.4 inches head to tail.

Smaller still are the top ranking reptile (the .6-inch-long dwarf gecko), fish (the .31-inch-long Paedocypris progenetica cyprinid fish from Indonesia), and amphibian (the .3-inch-long Paedophryne amauensis frog from Papua New Guinea). The latter is, in fact, the smallest known vertebrate living today.

But towering over (or under, as the case may be) the lot of them is the fairyfly, a parasitic wasp that measures only one 5000th of an inch.

4. LARGEST ANIMALS

No contest here. With an average length of almost 85 feet and estimated average weight (no individual has ever been weighed whole) of 210 tons, the blue whale beats any other known species, extant or extinct—and that includes dinosaurs—in the heavyweight championship.

5. LONGEST ANIMALS

While the blue whale may have sheer mass down pat, the record for head-to-tail length belongs to another creature. The bootlace worm, a species of ribbon worm found primarily around the United Kingdom and the European countries neighboring the North Sea, can reach 190 feet in length, yet rarely exceeds a few inches in width.

6. LOUDEST ANIMALS

The blue whale may hold yet another record when it comes to vocal sound, emitting a holler that reaches 188 decibels (two thirds louder than an average jet engine), but this might not in fact be the loudest noise created organically by a member of the animal kingdom. For this achievement, we look to a creature much smaller than the blue whale: the tiger pistol shrimp, which can produce with the snapping of its claw a sharp click that projects at more than 200 decibels.

7. ANIMALS WITH THE LONGEST LIFESPANS

Turtles and tortoises have a reputation for long, healthy living, and indeed one particular tortoise might be the longest living land animal in known history. Adwaita, an Aldabra giant tortoise kept in India’s Alipore Zoo until his death in 2006, was thought to be about 250 years old—that puts his birth in the mid 1700s.

But once more, we find the really big winners hidden beneath the sea. Another impressive individual is Ming, the ocean quahog clam who also died in 2006 (something’s fishy about that), at an estimated age of 507 years old.

However, that’s nothing still in comparison to its fellow sea dweller, the Antarctic sponge; some of these beings are thought to have been around for 1500 years!

The question gets ever more complicated when we consider one of the most fascinating phenomena in the animal kingdom: the “immortality” of the Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish. Upon reaching biological maturity, one of these creatures will reconstruct its own molecular makeup to revert back to a state of infancy, reliving its own lifespan once more from the start. The process happens over and over, without any glimmer of organic termination, suggesting that the jellyfish in question is the only known animal that might actually never die.

8. ANIMALS WITH THE SHORTEST LIFESPANS

If those are surreal numbers, imagine the other extreme: an entire life lasting only a day. That’s the fate of the mayfly, tragic (and perhaps a little poetic) though it may be.

9. ANIMALS THAT SLEEP THE MOST AND THE LEAST

There’s already very little common ground between the koala and the shark before you throw sleeping patterns into the equation. The adorable tree-dwelling marsupial snoozes more than just about any other creature, spending 22 hours of any given day dormant.

The shark, on the other hand, is never truly asleep. It simply slows its biological activity for occasional rest. Fellow go-getters include the giraffe and the elephant, which only sleep about four hours a night. The latter can actually take quick power naps while standing upright.

10. ANIMALS WITH THE BEST EYESIGHT

When it comes to basic clarity of vision over long distances, few can beat the bald eagle and its fellow birds of prey, whose eyesight is at least eight times as sharp as a human being’s. Owls rank high when it comes to night vision, as do tarsiers, which are diminutive predatory primates with tremendous eyeballs.

But when it comes to command of color, one animal puts the rest to shame: the mantis shrimp, which can see colors that no other creature on Earth can. The human eye has three different types of photoreceptors designed for reading color, all falling under the umbrella term “cones.” Whereas a human’s cones come in three types—those tuned into red, blue, and green wavelengths—the mantis shrimp has 12 to 16 different photoreceptors. This allows it to see colors we cannot even imagine, although some scientists believe that they still have trouble telling these colors apart in certain situations.

11. ANIMALS WITH THE BEST HEARING

Simon Hinkley & Ken Walker, Museum Victoria

As the common moth has a reputation for being inscrutably obsessed with bright lights (often to the point of its own demise), you’d guess that the insect’s eyesight is not its most sophisticated sense. In fact, the greater wax moth’s real claim to fame is its hearing. Though not an exotic critter by anyone’s measure (this particular species of moth, also called the honeycomb moth, is found throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia), the greater wax moth manages a rare feat of auditory prowess, catching frequencies at 300 kHz. Fifteen times better than a human’s, almost twice as good as a dolphin’s, and one-and-a-half times stronger than a bat’s hearing, this is the best known aural capacity in the animal kingdom.

12. ANIMALS WITH THE BEST SENSE OF SMELL

We hear stories of lost dogs sniffing their ways back home, or polar bears smelling delicious sea lions from a mile away. But the best nose in the animal kingdom is one that often goes unheralded, despite being as obvious a candidate as you’d imagine. It’s the elephant’s.

The elephant doesn’t only have the strongest sense of smell, it has the most sophisticated understanding thereof, bearing 1,984 different olfactory receptor genes—twice as many as the average dog or rat has. An elephant’s nose is instrumental in not only its foraging habits, but also in reproduction and social interaction. Furthermore, an African elephant can differentiate between predatory human tribes and peaceful ones based on smell alone.

13. MOST POISONOUS AND MOST VENOMOUS ANIMALS

The important difference between poison and venom distinguishes these two top-honored species from one another. Poison is transferred from one organism to another through touch or ingestion, while venom is delivered via a bite or sting—usually an attack by the toxic animal intending to kill its prey or predator.

In the former category, we have the golden poison frog, a species of poison dart frog. The glowing Colombia native is believed to contain enough poison in its body to wipe out 10,000 mice, 15 humans, or two elephants. In the latter category, we have the box jellyfish, whose powerful sting seizes victims instantaneously, assaulting the skin, heart, and nervous system all at once.

14. DEADLIEST ANIMALS

But neither one of these reigns as the deadliest animal, a superlative that belongs (quite horrifyingly) to the mosquito. The disease-ridden insect is responsible for more human deaths than any other creature, taking a startling 725,000 lives every year.

15. SMARTEST ANIMALS

The distinction of “smartest” when assessing the varied members of the animal kingdom is perhaps the hardest one to make, considering the great deal we have yet to learn about intelligence, both in general and as it applies to particular species. That said, a small handful of mammals consistently top the list.

When discussing the smarts of great apes, the chimpanzee, orangutan, and gorilla tend to alternate between the gold, silver, and bronze positions; still, the chimp is the most consistent top placer, bearing an intellectual makeup that appears closer and closer to that of a human as more studies are conducted. Beyond technical and linguistic sophistication, a chimp is believed to have complex emotionality. Its relationships and sense of self are strikingly familiar.

Of course, the dolphin is the primate’s most stalwart contender for the honor of smartest animal. While we have less an understanding of a dolphin’s mental acuity than we do of a chimp's or gorilla’s on the whole, we have come to recognize remarkable nuance in dolphin language, social relationships, and even ingenuity and creativity.

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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
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These Strange Sea Spiders Breathe Through Their Legs
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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

We know that humans breathe through their lungs and fish breathe through their gills—but where exactly does that leave sea spiders?

Though they might appear to share much in common with land spiders, sea spiders are not actually arachnids. And, by extension, they don't circulate blood and oxygen the way you'd expect them to, either.

A new study from Current Biology found that these leggy sea dwellers (marine arthropods of the class Pycnogonida) use their external skeleton to take in oxygen. Or, more specifically: They use their legs. The sea spider contracts its legs—which contain its guts—to pump oxygen through its body.

Somehow, these sea spiders hardly take the cake for Strangest Spider Alive (especially because they're not actually spiders); check out, for instance, our round-up of the 10 strangest spiders, and watch the video from National Geographic below:

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Scientists Study the Starling Invasion Unleashed on America by a Shakespeare Fan

On a warm spring day, the lawn outside the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan gleams with European starlings. Their iridescent feathers reflect shades of green and indigo—colors that fade to dowdy brown in both sexes after the breeding season. Over the past year, high school students from different parts of the city came to this patch of grass for inspiration. "There are two trees at the corner I always tell them to look at," Julia Zichello, senior manager at the Sackler Educational Lab at the AMNH, recalls to Mental Floss. "There are holes in the trees where the starlings live, so I was always telling them to keep an eye out."

Zichello is one of several scientists leading the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program, or SRMP. After completing a year of after-school science classes at the AMNH, New York City high school students can apply to join ongoing research projects being conducted at the institution. In a recent session, Zichello collaborated with four upperclassmen from local schools to continue her work on the genetic diversity of starlings.

Before researching birds, Zichello earned her Ph.D. in primate genetics and evolution. The two subjects are more alike than they seem: Like humans, starlings in North America can be traced back to a small parent population that exploded in a relatively short amount of time. From a starting population of just 100 birds in New York City, starlings have grown into a 200-million strong flock found across North America.

Dr. Julia Zichello
Dr. Julia Zichello
©AMNH

The story of New York City's starlings began in March 1890. Central Park was just a few decades old, and the city was looking for ways to beautify it. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin came up with the idea of filling the park with every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. This was long before naturalists coined the phrase "invasive species" to describe the plants and animals introduced to foreign ecosystems (usually by humans) where their presence often had disastrous consequences. Non-native species were viewed as a natural resource that could boost the aesthetic and cultural value of whatever new place they called home. There was even an entire organization called the American Acclimatization Society that was dedicated to shipping European flora and fauna to the New World. Schieffelin was an active member.

He chose the starling as the first bird to release in the city. It's easy to miss its literary appearance: The Bard referenced it exactly once in all his writings. In the first act of Henry IV: Part One, the King forbids his knight Hotspur from mentioning the name of Hotspur's imprisoned brother Mortimer to him. The knight schemes his way around this, saying, "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him to keep his anger still in motion."

Nearly three centuries after those words were first published, Schieffelin lugged 60 imported starlings to Central Park and freed them from their cages. The following year, he let loose a second of batch of 40 birds to support the fledgling population.

It wasn't immediately clear if the species would adapt to its new environment. Not every bird transplanted from Europe did: The skylark, the song thrush, and the bullfinch had all been subjects of American integration efforts that failed to take off. The Acclimatization Society had even attempted to foster a starling population in the States 15 years prior to Schieffelin's project with no luck.

Then, shortly after the second flock was released, the first sign of hope appeared. A nesting pair was spotted, not in the park the birds were meant to occupy, but across the street in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History.

Schieffelin never got around to introducing more of Shakespeare's birds to Central Park, but the sole species in his experiment thrived. His legacy has since spread beyond Manhattan and into every corner of the continent.

The 200 million descendants of those first 100 starlings are what Zichello and her students made the focus of their research. Over the 2016-2017 school year, the group met for two hours twice a week at the same museum where that first nest was discovered. A quick stroll around the building reveals that many of Schieffelin's birds didn't travel far. But those that ventured off the island eventually spawned populations as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. By sampling genetic data from starlings collected around the United States, the researchers hoped to identify how birds from various regions differed from their parent population in New York, if they differed at all.

Four student researchers at the American Museum of Natural History
Valerie Tam, KaiXin Chen, Angela Lobel and Jade Thompson (pictured left to right)
(©AMNH/R. Mickens)

There are two main reasons that North American starlings are appealing study subjects. The first has to do with the founder effect. This occurs when a small group of individual specimens breaks off from the greater population, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity. Because the group of imported American starlings ballooned to such great numbers in a short amount of time, it would make sense for the genetic variation to remain low. That's what Zichello's team set out to investigate. "In my mind, it feels like a little accidental evolutionary experiment," she says.

The second reason is their impact as an invasive species. Like many animals thrown into environments where they don't belong, starlings have become a nuisance. They compete with native birds for resources, tear through farmers' crops, and spread disease through droppings. What's most concerning is the threat they pose to aircraft. In 1960, a plane flying from Boston sucked a thick flock of starlings called a murmuration into three of its four engines. The resulting crash killed 62 people and remains the deadliest bird-related plane accident to date.

Today airports cull starlings on the premises to avoid similar tragedies. Most of the birds are disposed of, but some specimens are sent to institutions like AMNH. Whenever a delivery of dead birds arrived, it was the students' responsibility to prep them for DNA analysis. "Some of them were injured, and some of their skulls were damaged," Valerie Tam, a senior at NEST+m High School in Manhattan, tells Mental Floss. "Some were shot, so we had to sew their insides back in."

Before enrolling in SRMP, most of the students' experiences with science were limited to their high school classrooms. At the museum they had the chance to see the subject's dirty side. "It's really different from what I learned from textbooks. Usually books only show you the theory and the conclusion, but this project made me experience going through the process," says Kai Chen, also a senior at NEST+m.

After analyzing data from specimens in the lab, an online database, and the research of previous SRMP students, the group's hypothesis was proven correct: Starlings in North America do lack the genetic diversity of their European cousins. With so little time to adapt to their new surroundings, the variation between two starlings living on opposite coasts could be less than that between the two birds that shared a nest at the Natural History Museum 130 years ago.

Students label samples in the lab.
Valerie Tam, Jade Thompson, KaiXin Chen and Angela Lobel (pictured left to right) label samples with Dr. Julia Zichello.
©AMNH/C. Chesek

Seeing how one species responds to bottlenecking and rapid expansion can provide important insight into species facing similar conditions. "There are other populations that are the same way, so I think this data can help [scientists],” Art and Design High School senior Jade Thompson says. But the students didn't need to think too broadly to understand why the animal was worth studying. "They do affect cities when they're searching for shelter," Academy of American Studies junior Angela Lobel says. “They can dig into buildings and damage them, so they're relevant to our actual homes as well.”

The four students presented their findings at the museum's student research colloquium—an annual event where participants across SRMP are invited to share their work from the year. Following their graduation from the program, the four young women will either be returning to high school or attending college for the first time.

Zichello, meanwhile, will continue where she left off with a new batch of students in the fall. Next season she hopes to expand her scope by analyzing older specimens in the museum's collections and obtaining bird DNA samples from England, the country the New York City starlings came from. Though the direction of the research may shift, she wants the subject to remain the same. "I really want [students] to experience the whole organism—something that's living around them, not just DNA from a species in a far-away place." she says. "I want to give them the picture that evolution is happening all around us, even in urban environments that they may not expect."

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