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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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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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