Nature’s Olympians set some impressive records

February 9, 2014 

Peregrine falcons can reach 200 mph when they are diving in pursuit of food.

DALE GULDAN/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL

The Winter Olympics, running through Feb. 18, will capture the imagination of many as some of the best athletes on the planet compete to be named best in their sport.

But have you ever wonder about some of nature’s bests?

In the wild, animals are not competing to beat anyone else, it is about survival. Animals need to run fast, grow the tallest or do anything better than other species so they can find the food, escape the predators or maybe both at the same time.

Let’s take a look at some of the animal records and break them down into possible reasons.

Bigger is always better right? It depends on the context really. In the case of the world’s largest animal, bigger does help in survival. The blue whale can be more than 100 feet long and weigh more than 150 tons. This is larger than the largest dinosaur ever was. Although we may never know exactly why blue whales are so big, it’s probably because the bigger you are, the easier it is to stay warm. Size allows whales to stay in cold water (such as the Arctic or Antarctic, where many of them feed) without dying of cold. Size also means they can store lots of fat (in their blubber), so they have big energy reserves to get them through the winter when they migrate to warmer waters and aren’t able to eat because most tropical waters aren’t very productive with the big schools of fish or krill that whales need. So they have to rely on the fat they’ve built up during the summer feeding season.

So why don’t they just stay where there is more food? The answer is another record. Blue whales need to give birth to their babies in the warmer tropical waters. The baby whales feed on their mother’s milk and grow incredibly fast. As newborns, they weigh about 7 tons and are about 25 feet long. Even more incredible, baby blue whales grow at about a rate of 10 pounds per hour. This is a weight gain of one ton every nine to 10 days.

As all-inclusive as our human Olympics are, size and growth rate are not yet a recognized sport, so let’s look at some feats of amazing skill and strength.

Although the fastest land mammal, the cheetah, is pretty impressive at 65 mph, there are several birds that beat that by quite a bit with fast flying. A species of swift that lives in Asia holds the record for the fastest living creature. The spine-tailed swift can fly 106 mph even though it is only about the size of a sparrow. North American chimney swifts can fly about 60 mph. Not as impressive, but fast enough to catch the insects they eat. Of course, the insects don’t fly that fast, but the swifts need to zip around to find the insects and then catch them, so speed allows them to get the food they need.

Birds that must catch and eat other birds are pretty fast too. One of the fastest birds on the planet is the peregrine falcon. It can cruise along about 100 mph and hit top speeds of more than 200 mph when they dive.

Humans on skis can make some pretty impressive jumps, but so can animals without any special equipment other than what is built into their bodies. The long-jump record holder of the animal kingdom is the red kangaroo of Australia. It can jump more than 40 feet with a running start. When they are moving to cover a large span of territory or to escape predators, they employ a combination of running and long jumps to cover a lot of ground very quickly.

How far can you jump? From a standstill? With a running start? What about a high jump? Can you reach the ceiling? The basketball hoop? Our own native large cat, the mountain lion, can jump more than 20 feet straight up from a standstill. They use this skill mainly to escape danger by leaping into trees where they feel safer.

We often are impressed by the stamina of our world champion long-distance skiers, but they actually only travel a fraction of the distance that some birds migrate on a twice-a-year basis. The bird with the longest migration is the arctic tern. It annually migrates more than 10,000 miles. One record-holding individual logged a total of 14,000 miles between July of one year and May the next year. That bird had flown from from Siberia to Australia in less than one year.

Many of us delight in the beautiful displays of artistry and skill seen in the competitive skating world. But one only has to do an Internet search for bird dances to see performances beyond the wildest you can imagine. Fancy costumes! Choreography! Music and wild sounds! Birds have it all. The ultimate purpose of these displays is not a gold medal, but the right to breed and reproduce. In nature, after finding enough food, water and shelter to survive, the ultimate gauge of success is if you can pass your genes on to the next generation.

How do you compare?

If you want to see how you stack up against some animals, come to the Nature Center this month and measure yourself against the wingspan of some local birds. No special training is needed, just spread your “wings” and see which bird you are closest in size to. Hours of operation and directions can be found at tacomanaturecenter.org.

The News Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service