The fastest animals use speed to survive and thrive in the wild, swiftly chasing down prey or escaping from predators. These record-breaking speedsters are found all over the world and across the animal kingdom, whether they are running on land, swimming in water or flying in the sky. Below are nine of the fastest animals alive today.
Although they would smoke their human counterparts, wild animals don't take part in any Olympic races, so scientists often have to venture into the creatures' natural habitats to find out how fast they can move. And because animals don't necessarily travel at their fastest possible speed when humans happen to be measuring them, many of the speeds on this list are estimates — the animals could be even faster.
Fastest animals on land
Ostrich: 43 mph (70 km/h)
Ostriches (Struthio camelus) are the largest birds on Earth and the fastest birds on the ground, but they don't fly. They use their long, powerful legs to run up to 43 mph (70 km/h) in short bursts, according to the San Diego Zoo. Ostriches grow up to 9 feet (2.7 meters) tall and can cover 10 to 16 feet (3 to 5 m) in a single stride. These giant birds use their quickness to escape danger, including predators such as lions (Panthera leo).
Ostriches live in semi-arid plains and woodlands in Africa, including countries such as Mauritania and Senegal in western Africa; Somalia and Tanzania in eastern Africa; and Zimbabwe and South Africa in southern Africa, according to the African Wildlife Foundation.
Pronghorn: 60 mph (97 km/h)
Pronghorns (Antilocapra americana) are small, hoofed mammals from North America that can hit top speeds of up to 60 mph (97 km/h), according to Barnyards & Backyards, a magazine partnered with the University of Wyoming. This means pronghorns are the second fastest animal on land.
There aren't any predators that can reach close to that speed in North America today, but these swift antelope relatives evolved alongside now-extinct American cheetahs, which the pronghorns needed to outrun in order to survive, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Pronghorns in Wyoming may undertake migrations that can span 300 miles (483 km) in search of food, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Cheetah: 70 mph (112 km/h)
In the animal Olympics, cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) would dominate the sprinter races. These big cats are the fastest land animals and are capable of running at a top speed of 60 to 70 mph (96 to 112 km/h). One cheetah from the Cincinnati Zoo named Sarah was recorded running the 100-meter sprint in 5.95 seconds, Live Science previously reported. The fastest human ever, Olympic runner Usain Bolt, holds the world record for running the same distance in 9.58 seconds. During this sprint in 2009, he reached a top speed of 27.8 mph (44.7 km/h), according to the Olympics website.
Cheetahs live in northern, eastern and southern Africa, with a small population in Iran in Asia. They have long, slender bodies and powerful legs to help them reach their top speeds so they can chase down speedy prey, such as gazelles.
Fastest animals in water
Sailfish: 19 to 68 mph (30 to 110 km/h)
Sailfish (Istiophorus) are a group of fish that scientists often consider to be the fastest fish in the ocean, with a reported top speed of more than 68 mph (110 km/h), according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). However, some experts believe these large fish are actually much slower. Paolo Domenici, a biologist at the Italian National Research Council’s Institute of Biophysics (IBF), has doubts about sailfish and other marine animals swimming over 62 mph (100 km/h). According to Domenici, the widely cited sailfish top speed comes from a Country Life magazine article published in 1941, which isn't a scientific journal, making the data questionable.
"As of now, there isn't really a very clear measure of the fastest speed in potentially fast fish," Domenici told Live Science. He and his colleagues used tags and videos to measure sailfish tail-beat frequencies — the fish equivalent of stride lengths — to calculate how fast they may be able to travel. "When we did that we ended up having at most something around 8 to 10 meters per second [18 to 22 mph, or 29 to 36 km/h], not much higher than that," he said. Domenici co-authored a 2016 study published in the journal Biology Open that estimated the maximum swimming speed for sailfish is only about 19 mph (30 km/h).
Swordfish: 22 to 62 mph (36 to 100 km/h)
Swordfish (Xiphias gladius) are also contenders for the title of fastest swimming animal, with an estimated top speed of over 62 mph (100 km/h). However, this figure comes from Russian research translated into English and published in the early 1960s. The descriptions for how the swim speed was measured are not very clear or reliable, according to Domenici.
A 2007 study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface suggests that over 62 mph may be well beyond the physical limits of any fish or cetacean (porpoises, dolphins and whales). The researchers found that bubbles created by the animals while swimming can collapse on their fins and may cause damage if they travel faster than 10 to 15 meters per second, or 22 to 34 mph (36 to 54 km/h). In other words, these speeds may be about as fast as animals can swim in water because they would injure themselves by traveling faster.
Domenici thinks swordfish could still be the fastest fish in the ocean, despite likely not being able to travel much faster than 22 mph. The fish use their swords and large, streamlined bodies to reduce drag and streak through the water. Swordfish also secrete oil from pores on their heads to create a lubricating oil layer that may further reduce drag and increase their swimming efficiency, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
Dall's porpoise: 34 mph (54 km/h)
Dall's porpoises (Phocoenoides dalli) speed through the water at up to 34 mph (54 km/h), according to Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), a wildlife charity that focuses on cetaceans. Most porpoises are shy and avoid boats, but Dall's porpoises seek them out to ride their bow waves, The bow wave is created at the front of a boat and pushes animals that are riding the wave forward, which can help them swim faster than they would normally, according to Domenici.
Dall's porpoises live in the cold waters of the North Pacific Ocean, according to NOAA. Porpoises are a separate group of marine mammals to dolphins, which have longer bodies and elongated beaks, or mouths. Orcas (Orcinus orca), the largest members of the dolphin family, may also be able to reach speeds of 34 mph in front of a boat. This is the same speed as the upper limit in the 2007 study mentioned above, before animals may start damaging themselves.
Fastest animals in the sky
Brazilian free-tailed bat: 100 mph (160 km/h)
The fastest-flying animal on record is not a bird but a mammal. A 2016 study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science clocked Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) flying up to 44.5 meters per second, or 100 mph (160 km/h). The study tracked female bats that weighed around just 0.4 ounce (11 to 12 grams).
Some experts believe that white-throated needletails (Hirundapus caudacutus), members of the swift bird family, can fly even faster, at 105 mph (169 km/h). But this has never been proven scientifically, according to the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit conservation organization that focuses on birds and their habitat.
Brazilian free-tailed bats aren't just found in Brazil, as their name suggests. They range from Argentina and Chile in South America, through Central America and into the United States, including Oregon and Ohio, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The tiny bats tend to roost together in large numbers at only a few roost sites, which makes them vulnerable to human disturbance and habitat destruction, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Golden eagle: Almost 200 mph (322 km/h)
Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) are among the largest birds in North America, with wingspans reaching more than 7 feet across (220 centimeters). They fly quickly despite their large size, but their top speeds are reached during aerial dives. They can zoom through the air at almost 200 mph (322 km/h) when diving from great heights, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is part of Cornell University in New York. Golden eagles dive after prey, as well as during courtship rituals and play. Their habitat range stretches across the northern hemisphere, including North America, Europe, Africa and Asia, according to the IUCN.
Peregrine falcon: 220 mph (354 km/h)
Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) are the fastest animals in the world and can reach speeds of up to 220 mph (354 km/h) when diving through the air as they hunt other birds. Their regular cruising speeds range between 40 and 60 mph (64 to 97 km/h). According to a Boston University bio-aerial locomotion blog, these falcons are adapted for speed with pointed, streamlined wings, a modified breastbone for powerful muscle attachments and stiff feathers that reduce drag. Peregrine falcons can be found all over the world and on every continent except Antarctica, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
This article was originally written by Live Science contributor Stephanie Pappas and has since been updated.
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Patrick Pester is a freelance writer and previously a staff writer at Live Science. His background is in wildlife conservation and he has worked with endangered species around the world. Patrick holds a master's degree in international journalism from Cardiff University in the U.K.