Monday, August 20, 2012

Gold medalists of the natural world

Who’s fitter than an Olympic athlete?  In the spirit of the 2012 Olympic games, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), nominated its “gold medalists of the natural world”.  The Guardian newspaper in the UK publicized this article, adding some excellent photos of the winners. 

Here are the winners of a few of the athletic events highlighted by the IUCN:
Cheetah on the move

Sprinting – The cheetah wins the sprint competition, running at speeds of 112 km/hour (70 mph) over short distances.  Sarah, a cheetah at the Cincinnati Zoo, ran the 100-meter dash in 6.13 seconds, almost 3 seconds faster than Usain Bolt's world record time of 9.58 seconds (also in 2009, a good year for speed!). 

Arctic tern - taking a break?
Marathon– Arctic terns are the distance champions.  Each year for up to 30 years, these birds navigate a round-trip migration of over 70,000 km between the Arctic, where they breed, and the Antarctic oceans, the longest-distance migration of any bird. 
Photo: Tom Curtis,

Common froghopper

High jump – The Common Froghopper, a bug common across Great Britain, captures the gold in the high jump competition.  This super bug can jump 115 times its own height - equivalent to you or me jumping 200m!

Marine iguanas sunning with a sea lion

Triathlon – The Galapagos marine iguana is the world’s only lizard that runs on land and swims (to depths of 20m) beneath the ocean.  The ability to move well in both arenas helps the iguana live on isolated islands that may have limited food available.   They have yet to master the art of cycling, though. Photo: putneymark via Flickr

Young gibbon hanging on

Artistic gymnastics – The winning gymnasts here were the agile gibbons.  Gibbons gracefully swing, hand-over-hand (a movement called brachiation), through the trees, and they can reach a branch up to 15 m (50 feet) away in a single swing.  Like the tumbling runs of the Olympic gymnasts, gibbons can twist and turn while they swing.   This one may be considering a front flip?  
Photo: Glen Bowman,

Wilson's bird of paradise

Rhythmic gymnastics – Males of many of the 40 bird of paradise species dance to attract females, and their sometimes elaborate costumes (feathers) and routines take getting the girl to a higher level.   Some dance alone, while others assemble at a single spot in gatherings called “leks”, where they to compete for passing females by showing off their feathers and dancing skills (team medal, perhaps?).  Photo: Doug Hanson

Peregrine falcon flying
DivingPeregrine Falcons can reach up to 200mph (320km/h) when swooping through the sky in pursuit of prey, usually other birds. The fastest ever dive recorded was 242mph (390km/h).  Peregrines have special nostrils and eyelids that allow them to breathe and see during these super-fast dives.  Their main dive style involves folding back their wings and tail, tucking in their feet, and swooping downward, striking the passing bird with a clenched foot.  The impact stuns or kills the prey, and the falcon then turns to catch it in mid-air.   Photo: Kevin Cole

Oxpecker riding an impala

Equestrian – This medal is shared by the yellow-billed oxpecker and red-billed oxpecker, two bird species that ride on the backs of African grazing mammals, including cattle, eating ticks and other parasites living on their host.  Even their courtship takes places on top of their hosts.
Photo: PaulBanton72,

Rhinoceros beetle
Weightlifting – The rhinoceros beetle can carry loads of more than 30 times its own weight, making it one of the world’s strongest animals (though, apparently, some dung beetles may be equally strong).  In comparison, Hossein Rezazadeh’s official world record for the heaviest individual weight lifted by a human in an Olympic competition is 263.5kg (580.9 pounds), approximately 1½ times his own bodyweight and equivalent to lifting four average-sized people.  Photo:

Of course fitness in the animal world varies by species – running fast is important for cheetahs but not for gibbons, falcons, or oxpeckers -- each species relies on its unique combination of characteristics to survive and reproduce.  In fact, you can click here for a whole page of natural born record holders. 


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