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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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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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