Speedsters of Creation
SPEED has long interested humans, fast travel among the animal creation often being a topic of conversation. And numerous indeed are the speedsters of the animal world. Speedy travel among the animals, however, is not all pure enjoyment but often serious business; many depend on their speed to stay alive.
For example, consider the rabbit, which depends on its speed to stay out of the clutches of the fox. Among the fastest is the white-tailed jack rabbit. When outrunning a fox, it speeds along at an easy gait of 35 miles an hour or more. Its top speed is 45 miles an hour—faster than a greyhound, and as fast as a race horse with a rider!
For speedy travel over a short distance, however, no other land animal equals the cheetah. When running to grab a meal, this streamlined speedster is said to reach 45 miles an hour in two seconds. “Cheetahs,” says naturalist Ivan Sanderson, “have been clocked at over 60 m.p.h.” Their top speed may be 70 miles an hour.
For speedy travel over longer distances, few large mammals equal the gazelles. So fast is the Mongolian gazelle that it has been observed to travel at 60 miles an hour for half a mile. The remarkable speed of the gazelle is alluded to in the Holy Bible. For example, certain of King David’s mighty men were spoken of as being “like the gazelles upon the mountains for speed.”—1 Chron. 12:8; 2 Sam. 2:18.
Probably the fastest mammal of North America is the pronghorn. This antelope-like runner can dash along at 40 miles an hour for several miles. One pronghorn was timed at 55 miles per hour for half a mile. An unusual feature of this speedster of creation is the long white hairs on its rump. While running, the pronghorn can quickly raise and lower these hairs, flashing a brilliant signal. When flashed in bright sunlight, it can be seen nearly four miles. This signal evidently warns other pronghorns of danger from wolves or coyotes, as well as serving as a guide flag for fawns to follow, as speedily as they can.
Sometimes pronghorns enjoy a race, especially when there is the incentive of a passing auto or a train. In the early days of the American West, these speedy creatures liked to race the wood-burning locomotives of that era. In fact, entire herds would run right alongside the train for a while. Finally, in a tremendous burst of speed, these fleet-looted animals would dash ahead of the train and cross in front of the clanking locomotive, waving their “white flags” in triumph at the engineer!
Speedsters of the Sea
There are more problems to attaining rapidity in water, since it offers more resistance than air. In fact, water has a density about 800 times that of air and its viscosity is about fifty times as great. Despite this, many sea creatures are speedy swimmers because of their design.
The streamlined shape and smooth skin of dolphins minimize friction in the water. Speedy and graceful swimmers, these small whalelike mammals are able to make sharp turns and sudden stops. They swim by moving their tails and rear parts up and down, displacing large quantities of water. They evidently zip through water at around 25 miles an hour, but one dolphin was seen to zigzag in front of a ship traveling at 37 miles an hour.
Sharks may appear to be slow-moving creatures, for example, when they look around for a bite to eat. But if the need arises, they put on a sudden burst of speed, the mako shark reaching a top speed of about 35 miles an hour. Experiments with a blue shark indicated that it could, in a short burst of speed, reach 43 miles an hour.
“One of the most perfect streamlined contours known”—this is how the tuna fish has been described. Designed for swift travel, the tuna’s sleek body slips through water with a minimum of effort. Evidently tuna can travel at around 40 miles an hour. And how they love to travel! A bluefin tuna was tagged by scientists off Cat Cay in the Bahamas. It was caught off Bergen, Norway, 122 days later—some 5,300 direct miles away!
The octopus, crawling on the sea bottom with its tentacles, is not usually viewed as a speedster. But if the octopus sees danger, it makes a jet-propelled get-away. Filling its thick muscular mantle with water, this living jet expels the water through a movable funnel that can be turned in any direction. Away it goes! Said a pearl diver of the South Pacific about the giant octopus: “With a powerful effort he can shoot himself backward like a rocket, 50 to 100 feet, almost faster than the eye can follow. It is a tiger’s spring, the fastest movement I have seen in the water world.”
Like the octopus, the squid is an amazing speedster of the sea. When squids want to go somewhere in a hurry, they simply do as many humans—they go by jet. In fact, speed is the specialty of these ten-armed creatures, which may reach a length of sixty feet. Despite all their arms, squids have a streamlined shape. A rocket par excellence, a squid can change direction instantly, jetting up and down, forward and backward, the latter being their usual mode of travel.
If a squid is attacked by a dolphin, it releases an ink blob resembling a squid to fool the enemy. Then Mr. Squid turns himself into a neutral color and jets out of danger. How fast can a squid do this? Says Dr. Gilbert L. Voss, an authority on squids: “No one really knows how fast squids can swim, because their movements are so erratic. They are certainly among the swiftest animals in the oceans. Some can even shoot thirty or forty feet out of the water, gliding over the waves for more than a hundred feet. Not infrequently, they land on ships’ decks.” No energy crisis for the jet-powered squids!
Many other sea creatures are also spectacular speedsters. For example, the barracuda is said to travel 30 miles an hour; the blue marlin is capable of spurts up to 50 miles an hour. But the fastest fish may be the sailfish, a variety of swordfish. According to C. W. Coates and J. W. Atz, curator and assistant curator of the Aquarium of the New York Zoological Society, “the Atlantic Sailfish . . . looks like nothing so much as a torpedo when it flashes through the water, all its fins held close to its body. . . . The fish seems the very peak of streamlined form. . . . They are said to attain the phenomenal speed of sixty miles per hour under water.” According to Guinness Book of World Records, a speed of 68 miles an hour was cited for one sailfish off Florida. The fastest fish on record!
Birds That Run
Well named is the long-billed, long-legged and long-tailed bird called “roadrunner.” This member of the cuckoo family prefers to run on its legs rather than fly, although it will take to its wings to cross a canyon. On the ground it can move along at 15 to 20 miles an hour with ease, never seeming to get tired. As it runs along it may suddenly jump a foot or two into the air to snatch an insect tidbit. The roadrunner is so speedy that if chased, rather than take to wings, it sprints along out of danger. An obstacle in its path is no problem, because, if one looms up, the bird scoots around it with ease by the aid of a swing of its tail. One auto is reported to have chased a roadrunner that dashed along at a speed of 22 miles an hour.
Another fast-running bird is the emu. One of these large birds, chased by an auto, managed to keep up a speed of 31 miles an hour for 10 miles.
Though the emu is fast, the ostrich generally is viewed as the swiftest bird on land. The wings of these fleet-footed speedsters, though useless for flight, help to give lift to the bird’s heavy body as it runs, enabling it to reach a top speed of 40 miles an hour! The Creator of the ostrich and all the other speedsters of land, sea and air himself commented on that bird’s speed when he told Job that it ‘flaps its wings on high and laughs at the horse and at its rider.’—Job 39:18.
Birds in Flight
The hummingbird is outstanding for speed on a short trip. It is believed to fly as fast as 60 miles an hour. It often looks like an arrow darting through the sky. One moment it hovers over a flower, the next moment it has shot to the top of a tall tree. The hummingbird flies up and down, forward and backward, being the only bird capable of true backward flight. It does this by changing the variable pitch of its wings, helicopter-fashion. This living helicopter is truly a marvel among the feathered speedsters of creation!
Few persons would question the eagle’s credentials as a fast flier. The Bible mentions the swiftness of eagles several times. (2 Sam. 1:23; Jer. 4:13) For example, in a prophecy about the Babylonian armies and their horses coming to punish unfaithful Jerusalem, Habakkuk 1:8 says: “They fly like the eagle speeding to eat something.” When speeding to a meal, the golden eagle travels so fast that, as one authority says, “the sound of the air whining through its pinions can be heard for quite a distance.” It appears to speed to its dinners at 120 or more miles per hour!
But which bird is the fastest of all the flying speedsters? Authorities differ. Some say the peregrine falcon (often called “duck hawk” in the United States because of its fondness for duck dinners). This bird, with a powerful, compact body and long pointed wings, obviously saves its greatest bursts of speed for mealtime. One naturalist, observing hungry falcons, reported: “Many times I have seen one, high above me, turn its nose downward, give a mighty flap for thrust, then close its wings and plummet toward the earth like a hurled stone.” During these dives, the falcon is believed to reach 180 miles an hour or more. One falcon swiftly passed up an airplane nosediving at over 170 miles an hour, the pilot reporting that it was as though his plane “was standing still.”
Other persons mention the frigate bird as possibly being the fastest. Magnificently designed for flying, this speedster with pointed wings has a tremendous wingspread of six feet. It has been called “a flying-machine . . . unparalleled in nature.” Though a flying speed of about a hundred miles an hour has been recorded for this bird, yet it is believed to be capable of much greater speeds. J. E. Capstickdale observed frigate birds over his schooner, heading toward an island. He timed them by chronometer, and reported their speed as 261.4 miles an hour. But this speed is disputed by most authorities. In any event, Capstickdale said:
“I may add that I have always been interested in birds’ flight speeds, and have seen the American duck-hawk put up some enormous speeds, but I may say without the slightest hesitation that always I have been able to distinguish the speck in the sky as a bird, whereas when the frigate dives to his prey, fish or baby turtles, it ceases to be even a speck and becomes nothing more than a very slight blur visible only to keen and trained eyes.”—Nature Parade, Frank W. Lane.
Some naturalists believe that the birds called “swifts” are really the fastest of all. These saber-winged speedsters fly all day without letup, snatching insects out of the air. In the evening, as the last glimmer of sunlight fades from the sky, chimney swifts may circle above an unused chimney and then whirl down it, clinging vertically inside for a night’s rest. Some swifts even spend the whole night in the air!
Here, then, are birds that spend practically their entire lives on the wing. They even ride out storms and gales that would send other birds to cover. In India, spine-tailed swifts were timed over a two-mile course. Speeds varied between 174 and 219 miles an hour! “This bird,” reports Guinness Book of World Records (1973 edition), “is the fastest moving living creature.”
So marvelously designed are these speedsters of sky, sea and land that man has copied some of their ingenious ways to achieve faster travel. The shape of birds has contributed to aircraft design. Even for enjoyment of water sports, man has copied frogs, seals and other efficient animal swimmers by using rubber flippers. But the credit and praise for their marvelous designs should go, not to the animals themselves, but to the One who made these speedsters of creation.—Rev. 4:11.