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10 Fast-moving predators and prey in nature

10 Fast-moving predators and prey in nature

From roadrunners to dragonflies, explore the incredible speed and agility of these predators and prey and learn about the strategies they use to survive in the wild

For a predator, acceleration is one way to catch prey, but prey can also use speed to get out of trouble. Fast-moving predators and prey constantly try to outdo each other in a life-or-death race. Here are ten of the quickest-moving creatures of nature

1. The fastest thing on four legs

10 Fast-moving predators and prey in nature - Young Cheetah cub with curled up tail chasing a small baby Thompson's Gazelle learning to hunt in the savannah of Masai Mara KenyaCredit: StuPorts

Small-headed, long-legged and built for speed, the cheetah can accelerate from a standing start to 72km/h in three seconds. Although it can quickly reach a top speed of 97km/h, the cheetah has no stamina for a long chase. A cheetah’s average pursuit is over 170m and lasts no more than 20 seconds.

With such powerful muscles and no surplus weight, the cheetah—which lives in Africa—generates enormous amounts of heat. During a 200m dash, its temperature can rise to 41˚C, a level certain to cause brain damage if sustained for more than a minute or two.

"Although it can quickly reach a top speed of 97km/h, the cheetah has no stamina for a long chase"

To compensate, the cat adopts one of two hunting strategies. One way is to amble nonchalantly towards its prey, often a young Thomson’s gazelle, freezing each time the target looks up. The other is to use stealth, stalking unseen through the undergrowth to within 50m, then taking off on its high-speed chase. Unlike other cats, the cheetah’s claws are permanently exposed, giving it the equivalent of running spikes.

2. Swift hunter of the chaparral

10 Fast-moving predators and prey in nature - A selective focus shot of a brown roadrunner bird perched on a rockCredit: Wirestock

The North American roadrunner is the cheetah of the bird world. This 50–60cm long hunter can run at speeds of more than 42km/h. It lives in the dry desert chaparral of the southwest, where it feeds on lizards, snakes, and insects.

It is able to fly but pursues its prey on the ground. It runs with its neck pushed forwards, its wings partly open to act as stabilisers, its legs going 12 steps a second, and its tail used as a rudder that can turn the bird through 90 degrees without it slowing down.

3. Fast-moving sun spiders

Desert-living sun spiders are the fastest animals on eight legs. They move in short bursts of speed, which can exceed 16km/h. Although usually active at night, an individual caught out in the day will run between shadows.

Sun spiders appear to have ten legs, but they only have eight. The first pair are modified appendages, or pedipalps, that act as “feelers” for killing the insects on which they feed. The legs of the largest species may span up to 15cm.

4. Winning ways of the ocean’s fastest fish

10 Fast-moving predators and prey in nature - A sailfish fights the lure on a fishing trip in the SeychellesCredit: ByronD

The sailfish, a 2.4m long speedster, has been clocked at 110km/h. When in pursuit of high-speed prey, such as tuna, mackerel, and squid, the fish flattens its enormous bright fan-like dorsal fin against its back and holds its pectoral fins against its sides. This streamlines its body into a living torpedo.

Sailfish live in tropical and temperate waters worldwide. They sometimes hunt in groups, and by raising their dorsal fins, they frighten the fish on which they prey into a tight ball and can pick them off one by one.

5. Deadly combination of speed and surprise

The speed at which the peregrine drops out of the sky to catch prey makes it the fastest animal in the world. The bird’s normal cruising speed of about 65km/h more than doubles to a wind-whistling stoop of 160–240km/h when diving after prey.

"Seemingly out of nowhere, the peregrine strikes down its victim with a single blow, circles, and then drops down to retrieve its meal"

A peregrine sets up an ambush in the sky to intercept its prey. It waits in the clouds about 1.6km above the ground until it spots a passing target. Then it flies out of the sun, folds back its wings and plummets. Seemingly out of nowhere, it strikes down its victim with a single blow, circles, and then drops down to retrieve its meal. The peregrine is found all over the world, inland and on the coast.

6. The speedy insect that outruns its prey

10 Fast-moving predators and prey in nature - Image of tiger beetle on green leaves on natural background.Credit: yod67

Tiger beetles are among the fastest animals on six legs. Over a distance of 30cm, a North American tiger beetle has been timed sprinting at 50cm a second—the equivalent of 54 body lengths a second—making the beetle 10 times faster than the world’s top human sprinter.

A voracious predator, the tiger beetle uses its speed to catch ground-living insects such as ants, spiders, and other beetles. Its chase is jerky: the beetle runs so fast that it cannot gather enough light to form an image in its large eyes. It must stop, look around, check the position of its prey, and then go. Even so, it is so fleet of foot that it can overtake its prey and capture its meal with its dagger-like jaws.

7. Heating control keeps shark alert for the chase

The ocean’s fastest shark, the shortfin mako, can maintain a speed of 50km/h over 0.8km. It can accelerate away in even faster bursts. To do this, it possesses a physiological trick that many other sharks do not enjoy.

Although all sharks are cold-blooded creatures, the mako maintains the temperature of its swimming muscles, eyes, and brain about 5˚C higher than the surrounding seawater. This ensures that it is alert for any opportunity to feed and ready for a high-speed chase.

8. Killer whale in hot pursuit

10 Fast-moving predators and prey in nature - a pair of killer whales leaping above the sea in CanadaCredit: slowmotiongli

When pursuing prey, the killer whale travels at 64–80km/h making it the fastest member of the dolphin family. It is propelled by the up-and-down movement of its powerful tail. When not in pursuit, it cruises at 10–13 km/h and can cover up to 160 km/h a day. Its powerful acceleration makes it an effective predator of fast-moving dolphins and seals.

9. Insect hunter stays cool on the wing

10 Fast-moving predators and prey in nature - Close up of a dragonflyCredit: EllyMiller

The dragonfly Austrophlebia costali is one of the fastest-known flying insects. It can swoop downhill at 98 km/h but more usually dashes about its territory at about 58km/h. An active hunter, it intercepts other insects on the wing.

"Once airborne, dragonflies tend to overheat, so they make 15-second glides to help to cool their body"

Dragonflies may be fast flyers, but they flap their wings relatively slowly, at about 30 beats per second (compared with a hoverfly at 200bps or a honey bee at 300bps). Their body temperature varies with the air temperature. If their muscles are cold, they are unable to fly, so they need to warm up first by basking in the sun or shivering their muscles.

Once airborne, dragonflies tend to overheat, so they make 15-second glides to help to cool their body. They can also divert warm blood from the thorax to the abdomen, where it cools before returning.

10. The swift’s high-speed courtship ritual

During its courtship displays, the white-throated spine-tailed swift has the fastest flapping flight speed of any known bird. With its long, thin, crescent-shaped wings, it can fly at 170km/h and soar aerobatically on thermal currents.

At lower speeds, the bird, which lives in Japan and southern Asia, scoops flying insects from the air for food. It spends much of its life on the wing, including mating and sleeping, and lands only to raise its brood.

Banner credit: Blackregis

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