The cheetah is known to be the fastest creature on land, but the animal kingdom is not limited to Earthits surface. What is the fastest flying animal? And what biological characteristics enable its speed?
Nature’s fastest jet-setter is the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus). “Peregrinus” is Latin for “traveler,” an appropriate moniker given that the raptors can migrate up to 15,550 miles (25,000 kilometers) in a round trip—one of the longest migrations in North America. according to the Nature Conservancy (opens in new tab) Indeed, falcons are global birds, found on every continent except AntarcticThe The National Wildlife Federation is noted (opens in new tab).
Peregrine falcons hunt prey from great heights, either from the air or from a high perch. When they find a target, they swoop down at high speeds, attacking with a clenched leg to stun or kill prey on impact, Hein van Grouw, senior curator of the bird group at London’s Natural History Museum, said in an email to Live Science. During a dive — known as a dive — a peregrine falcon is estimated to reach speeds of up to about 320 km/h, according to a 2018 study in Journal of Comparative Physiology A (opens in new tab)which not only make peregrines the fastest birds in the world but also the fastest animals in the world, noted Britannica (opens in new tab).
Experimental dives have shown that peregrines can even reach speeds of up to 242 mph (389 km/h); according to Guinness World Records (opens in new tab). In a series of dives in 1999, a female peregrine falcon named “Frightful,” owned by aviator and falconer Ken Franklin of Friday Harbor, Washington, set the world record after being released from an airplane about 17,000 feet (5,182 meters) above the sea. level. The 6-year-old Frightful was about 16 inches (40.6 centimeters) long, weighed about 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) and had a wingspan of about 41 inches (104 centimeters), Guinness World Records noted.
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To measure the Frightful’s speed, Franklin attached a 4-ounce (113.4 gram) computer chip taken from a skydiver’s altimeter recorder to the Frightful’s tail fins. Franklin then measured how far Frightful dived during a certain amount of time. Franklin and a cameraman also wore altimeters (devices that measure altitude) when parachuting with Frightful during her dips. Data from all the devices were compared after the dives, Guinness World Records said.
So, what anatomical features help peregrines achieve these great speeds?
Falcons have pointed wings that resemble those of fighter jets. This shape reduces the amount of drag they experience from the wind, which helps peregrines fly quickly, said Ed Drewitt, a zoologist and peregrine falcon researcher based in the United Kingdom and author of “Urban Approved (opens in new tab)(Pelagic Publishing, 2014) told Live Science in an email.
Peregrines have teardrop-shaped muscular bodies that also help streamline the birds to “reduce drag and help them fall like a bullet,” Drewitt said. In addition, their wings are extremely tightly packed and rigid in structure compared to other hawks, “probably to reduce drag and make it go more smoothly through the air,” van Grouw said.
Nostrils, meanwhile, have a system of small knobs inside them that are thought to act as septa – a structure that regulates the passage of fluids. These knobs work by “reducing the flow of air into their air passages,” Drewitt said. This likely helps peregrines breathe during their incredibly fast dives.
The peregrine’s breakneck speed helps it hunt—mostly other birds, ranging from prey as small as hummingbirds to as large as sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), according to the National Wildlife Federation. Scientists have documented about 450 species of birds as their prey in North America, and the number worldwide may be as high as 2,000.
Related: Why are there so many pigeons?
The shape of the peregrine closely resembles that of their main prey, the common pigeons (Columba livia), also known as rock pigeons. “They both have evolved next to each other, one to escape the other and one to catch the other,” said van Grouw. “It’s interesting that they both get their speed from the same body shape.”
Peregrines also eat bats and occasionally steal prey such as fish and rodents from other predators.
In fact, while peregrines are the fastest animals to move through the air when diving, a bat claims the prize as the fastest flying creature in history. Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) are the the fastest known aircraft in the world, clocking speeds of up to 100 mph (160 km/h), Live Science previously reported. This is fast compared to peregrine falcon flight speeds, which average 25 to 34 mph (40 to 55 km/h) in cruising flights and 69 mph (112 km/h) while chasing prey. according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (opens in new tab).
Originally published in Live Science.