This might seem like a straightforward question but it isn't. Are we talking about the fastest animals on land, in the sea or in the air? Many birds can fly at speeds much faster than any land animal can run. Do we want to focus on an animal's top speed over a very short distance or its cruising speed (how fast it can go over long distances)?
For this article, we've broken our list into three categories: the fastest animals on land, sea and air and attempted to note the five fastest in each category. We've indicated both the top speeds and the average speeds in most cases. Conflicting data may make our list somewhat different from other lists on the internet.
Here are the elite members on the list of the fastest animals the world, bearing in mind there are 8.7 million or so species out there. Our list is ranked in order of an animal's maximum speed.
Cheetahs have long fascinated people, with their gorgeous coats, stealthy manner and ability to achieve impressive speeds of up to 70 miles per hour (120 kilometers per hour). In fact, they can actually go from zero to 60 mph (97 kph) in as little as three seconds, similar to your average Corvette. However, they are not marathon runners, and can only keep up such high speeds for about 60 seconds. Their normal running speed is closer to 40 mph (64 kph). Cheetahs are generally considered the world's fastest land animal.
Cheetahs are naturally outfitted with several physical characteristics that help to make them so fast, including claws that don't retract (which helps them with traction on the ground), as well as unique pads on their feet. These cats are found across Africa, although their dwindling numbers mostly hang out in the southern and eastern areas of the continent. They use their incredible speeds to take down smaller prey, some of which are pretty speedy themselves. For instance, the blue wildebeest can reach speeds of 50 miles (80 kilometers) per hour.
The next time you visit the Wyoming area, it's entirely possible that you could lay eyes on a pronghorn or two. Though it is sometimes called the "pronghorn antelope," this hoofed beauty is not an antelope, but rather a cousin of antelopes and goats. Pronghorns are by far the fastest animals on land in North America, and the second-fastest animals in the world, topping out at speeds of around 60 mph (98 kph). These deer-like mammals can maintain such speeds for up to a half-mile, longer than most other fast land animals who sprint primarily to hunt. The pronghorn's speed and endurance could very well have been an evolutionary adaptation to help them evade hunters.
3. Goitered Gazelle
Next on our list is a mid-sized gazelle found in many parts of Asia, particularly northwest China, southern Kazakhstan and Mongolia. These beauties get their name thanks to an enlargement on the larynx that resembles a goiter. Goitered gazelles can achieve a high speed of 60 mph (97 kph), which is fortunate since they are popular targets for hunters. Currently, this land animal holds the Guinness World Record for "fastest antelope."
The springbok is native to Southern Africa, and can run 55 mph (88 kph) in short bursts. This mid-sized antelope is also known for its maneuvering capabilities, like turning sharply while being chased and making incredibly long leaps to throw off pursuers, like cheetahs.
5. American Quarter Horse
Quarter horses were specifically bred over time to be fast. In fact, the name directly refers to the breed's speed, as it describes its ability to outrun other horse breeds in races of a quarter mile or less, according to the American Quarter Horse Association. The world's most popular horse breed, the quarter horse can run up to 55 mph (88 kph), which is undoubtedly why they're so popular in ranching and horse racing circles.
Standards set in a 1940 meeting of the American Quarter Horse Association actually require that legit quarter horses need to be able to do a quarter-mile (402-meter) run in 23 seconds or less (if they can't do that, they must demonstrate other quarter horse ranching skills to qualify).
5 Fastest Animals in the Air
1. Peregrine Falcon
Peregrine falcons take the prize for fastest animal overall, as these feathered friends can often hit speeds up to a whopping 200 mph (320 kph) or more. These speeds are achieved when they dive from heights to catch prey. The world record holder for "fastest dive by a bird" is thus not surprisingly a peregrine falcon named Frightful, who achieved a dive speed of 242 mph (389 kph) in a 1999 experiment. Chances are, you've spied many a peregrine falcon, as they live on every single continent, except for Antarctica.
2. Saker Falcon
The Saker falcon, which calls Europe, Asia and Africa home, is a hunting superstar, thanks to the fact that it can fly up to 200 mph (320 kph) when in pursuit of prey. The rest of the time, it prefers to glide around in the air. It is the national bird of both Hungary and Mongolia. This falcon, not too surprisingly, is closely related to the peregrine falcon.
3. Golden Eagle
These large raptors are most often seen in the western United States, although they've actually been named the "official national animal" by more countries than any other living creature. These countries include Germany, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Austria and Albania. These large, yet lithe winged creatures glide up to 120 mph (193 kph), but really flex when they dive for prey at speeds between 150 to 200 mph (241 to 322 kph). Golden eagles feed primarily on rabbits, squirrels and prairie dogs but aren't afraid to attack larger mammals in defense of their young or their prey.
The is one bird that most people will likely never lay eyes on in real life. That's because the Gyrfalcon lives in the Arctic, way out in remote areas of Canada and Alaska. Pronounced "JER-falcon," the color of these beauties ranges from snow white to dark brown. Gyrfalcons have an impressive diving speed of about 130 mph (209 kph) to catch prey. However they are also believed to be the fastest bird in the world at level flight (as opposed to diving), as they can move at a rate of 50 to 68 mph (80 to 109 kph).
5. Mexican Free-tailed Bat
While not a bird, this medium-sized bat has short fur and long narrow wings, making it built for speed. Seen throughout the southern United States, Mexico and Central America, these bats can fly up to 100 miles (161 kilometers) a night looking for food, at average speeds of 60 mph (96 kph). However, a 2016 study showed that Mexican free-tailed bats (aka Brazilian free-tailed bats because they winter as far south as Brazil) can fly as fast as 99 mph or 160 kph in level flight. This is faster than any birds or other bats in level flight.
5 Fastest Animals in the Sea
The sailfish is right up there with the cheetah, in terms of speed. This species is the current record holder as the "fastest species of fish over short distances," with the top recorded speed of 68 mph (109 kph) during a series of speed trials, according to Guinness World Records.
Sailfish also have pointed bills that help them stun/kill prey and they also sport huge dorsal fins (which is where the "sail" in their name comes from) on their 220 pound (100 kilogram) average bodies. When they want to achieve high speeds they fold their fins completely back, effectively making their long bodies look like torpedo shapes.
2. Blue Marlin
This enormous fish species weighs up to 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms) and averages 16 feet (5 meters) in length. These speedy suckers swim at average speeds of 50 mph (80 kph), but can actually go as fast as 68 mph (110 kph). They are known for having round and pointed bills and are unfortunately also one of the most desirable big game fishes in the world.
Oil is apparently the key to helping swordfish swim high speeds of 62 mph. Their average speed is 40 mph. These fish, known for their long, pointy bills that resemble swords, actually have oil-producing glands, which when secreted help the fish move at ultra-high speeds. These bills can be as long as 5 feet (1.5 meters)! Swordfish hang out in a lot of different types of waters, including the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans, and are known to migrate thousands of miles.
4. Yellowfin Tuna
Compared with their bluefin brethren, yellowfin tuna are practically miniature, at "only" 400 pounds (190 kilograms). Known as one of the fastest swimmers in the ocean, the yellowfin tuna swims constantly, sometimes reaching speeds of 50 mph (80 kph). They achieve these impressive speeds by folding their bright yellow fins in.
5. Atlantic Bluefin Tuna
Tiny tuna, these are not. Atlantic bluefin tuna can reach sizes of more than 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms) and 10 feet (3 meters) in length. This, combined with their impressive fishy muscles and aerodynamic shape allow them to swim up to 43 mph (69 kph). This is helpful, as the migratory patterns of tuna are enormous, with some going from the Gulf of Mexico to the coast of Europe, then back to breed!
Now That's Interesting
There are some outliers to this list we should point out: Black marlins normally achieve speeds of just 30 mph (48 kph), but a BBC report claimed that a fisherman caught a black marlin, which stripped the line off a reel at 120 feet per second. This would suggest the fish was swimming at about 80 mph (129 kph). If this was correct, this would make the black marlin the fastest fish in the sea. However, the record has not been substantiated. Also, scientists clocked a mite in Southern California moving 322 body lengths per second, whereas a cheetah moving 60 mph only does 16 body lengths per second. By this measure, the mite could also be considered the fastest land animal.
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