How Do the Strongest, Fastest Animals Compare to Olympians?

What is the fastest animal on land? How about in water? How much can the strongest animal lift? Let’s look at how the rest of the animal kingdom would shape up against our Olympians and other World Record setters.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #203

Fastest Animal in Air: Diving Speed

Another popular summer Olympic event is diving. Of course, divers are scored based on their technique, including starting position, approach, gracefulness of flight, their entry into the water, and the degree of difficulty of their dive, so the Olympic and World Records aren’t really about speed. But since it wouldn’t be fair to judge a bird on its poise, let’s look at their speed anyway.

We can actually estimate the speed for any diver if we know their starting height (combined with our knowledge of their acceleration due to gravity). In the World Championships for the high dive, men jump from platforms around 27 meters high while women jump from 20 meters. Kinematics tells us that their ending position (a height of 0) is equal to their starting position minus one-half times the gravitational acceleration times the square of the time the dive takes. Solving for that time, a 20-meter dive will take ~2 seconds for an average speed of 10 meters per second.

The peregrine falcon, a very successful and intense predator, can dive through the air at 242 miles per hour. That’s about 389 kilometers per hour or 110 meters per second and makes them the fastest animal in the air.

Strongest Animal

The strongest man and woman depend, of course, on weight class and technique (snatch versus clean and jerk). Hossein Rezazadeh of Iran, in the highest (>105 kilos) weight class, currently holds the World Record for the most weight lifted via clean and jerk at 263 kilograms. Tatiana Kashirina holds that record for women at 194 kilograms.

On a list of the strongest animals, the grizzly bear is near the top. To test a grizzly bear’s strength, researchers from Montana smeared a dynamic testing device, one that measures the force being exerted upon it, with honey, jam, and purified fish heads (yum!) to encourage the bear to pull on it. They determined grizzly bears to be 2.5 to 5 times as strong as a human.

But lest you think we are closing the gap on the animal kingdom in the strength category, we can also define strength by body weight. If we do, the dung beetle is the clear winner. Dung beetles like to munch on, lay eggs in, and sometimes even live in … you guessed it. Dung. This often requires transporting dung balls pulled from a dung heap, and the strongest dung beetles can pull 1,141 times their own body weight. Scientists measured the beetle’s strength by super gluing cotton thread to the insects’ legs and tying the other end to a weighted pulley. That’s the equivalent of a 150-pound person pulling six double decker buses full of people.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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