Nature is full of organisms with abilities that defy belief. For humans, super speed is an ability only found in fictional characters like The Flash, but it is an everyday reality for a small number of species. They do not necessarily run, fly or swim at great speeds, so you will not find cheetahs and peregrine falcons on this list. It is things they do when they hunt, defend themselves, or mate that can happen faster than you can blink. In some cases, they happen even faster than bullets can fire. Here are ten surprising species with super-fast abilities.
10 Snapping Shrimp
The snapping shrimp’s alternative name, pistol shrimp, is fitting. They have evolved spring-loaded claws which can snap so fast underwater they shoot out an air bubble. When it pops, the bubble produces bright light and a sound as loud as a gunshot which stuns prey. The process happens so fast the bubble cannot be seen by the naked human eye, although the sound can be heard. The fastest of all are young snapping shrimps.
While adults’ snaps are still incredibly fast, they can be captured on camera with a frame rate of 50,000fps. The juveniles’ snaps can be twenty times faster and blur on camera at that rate. Scientists required 300,000fps to capture them on camera. The speed at which they accelerate their claws shut is believed to be the fastest repeatable underwater motion.
Also known as beach-hoppers or scuds, amphipods are belly-button-sized crustaceans found globally in more than 100,000 varieties. One species found in the Atlantic Ocean, Dulichiella appendiculata, can also snap its claws at frighteningly fast speeds. This is impressive, given their claws account for around a quarter of their body mass. However, they do not stun prey with the resulting air bubbles like the snapping shrimp.
Instead, they snap to move themselves and can go from standing still to over 62mph (100km/h) in mere milliseconds. Scientists are unsure why they need to move so fast. The theory of evolution says the trait must have developed because it was necessary. The fact only males possess the claw led researchers to guess it is related to fighting or attracting mates.
8 Cone Snails
It is an understatement to say snails are not known for their speed. However, the ocean-dwelling cone snail possesses a surprising, lightning-fast ability. It strikes prey with harpoons that travel so fast that they are one of the fastest means of attack in the entire animal kingdom. Their venomous harpoons travel at speeds so extreme scientists have compared them to fired bullets. The comparatively slow-moving fish they hunt have no chance to avoid an accurate harpoon traveling at up to 248.55 miles per second squared (400,000 meters per second squared).
Strikes can happen within 100 microseconds of the missile being launched. The harpoon is released by the snails once enough pressure has built up to overcome a latch mechanism that holds it back. This is what allows the harpoons to travel so fast. In 2019, scientists explained they were researching the harpoon mechanism to find inspiration for new robots or medical devices.
The fiend of beachgoers the world over, these tentacled invertebrates’ terrifying stings involve a mechanism that acts so fast it is usually measured in nanoseconds—billionths of a second. The sting of a jellyfish is caused when a creature touches the surface of a microscopic sac of poison called a nematocyst. This causes a razor-sharp dart inside the nematocyst to be launched at a speed faster than blinking and comparable to a bullet. It only travels 10 to 20 micrometers from the launch site to the nematocyst surface, but it does so in less than one millionth of a second.
The pressure to launch the dart with such astonishing acceleration comes from a special protein that stretches like a near-bursting balloon. The launch requires an extreme frame rate of around 1,430,000fps to be captured on camera. It generates a force equal to one million times the pull of gravity. For reference, astronauts experience forces of four or five g’s.
These alien-looking fish can be found lurking on the sea floor around Australia and New Zealand. They hide among coral and rocks in order to ambush almost anything unlucky enough to encounter them when they are hungry, including octopuses, crabs, prawns, and shellfish. They have large, round heads and a broad mouth that is impressive for more than just its size.
Frogfish have the fastest bite of any vertebrate, even while biting in water 800 times denser than air. Their mouths expand at speeds comparable to .22 rifle bullets being fired, leaving little chance for prey to escape the ferocious ambush predator and its expandable stomach.
These flat, four-millimeter creatures are common in lakes and ponds. They are tiny single-celled organisms, but they have an incredibly quick defensive capability that ranks them among the fastest-moving creatures on Earth. When startled, it takes them only a few milliseconds to shorten their body length by around 60 percent by curling up into the shape of an American football. They contract their bodies with an acceleration of 656 feet per second squared (200 meters per second squared). Impressively, they do this without the kind of muscles humans use and without damaging their internal structures.
The mechanisms involved mimic springs, latches, and motors more than muscles, or it might be better to say those things will soon mimic these creatures. Engineers hope studying the spirostomum will help advance nanotechnology and tiny robots. Research into the creatures also helped correct the misconception that single-celled organisms do not do much individually and only form the building blocks for more interesting tissues.
4 California Mite
This tiny arachnid can move at amazing speeds of almost 11.8 inches per second (30 centimeters per second or 0.9km/h. What is amazing about that? In terms of body length per second, these sesame-seed-sized speedsters move 332 times. If humans did this, they would be moving at 1,440 miles per hour 2,317 km/h). By this measure, California mites easily best other land animals.
Next is the Australian tiger beetle, which can manage 171 body lengths per second. Humans dwindle in comparison. Record-breaking sprinters like Usain Bolt only manage six body lengths per second and can only maintain their speed for short bursts. Scientists believe studying the biomechanics that allow the mites to travel so fast might help engineers improve the speed of robots and other devices.
3 Horse Fly
These large flies are the scourge of many summer visitors to woodlands, marshlands, and beaches. The females are able to deliver a painful bite and can be incredibly persistent in pursuit of the blood they need to consume to stimulate egg production. However, it is the males who rank among the fastest creatures on the planet.
One North American male in pursuit of a mate was recorded traveling at an amazing 90 mph (144.8km/h). That is fast by the standards of almost any animal but translated into body length per second, it would be roughly equivalent to a human traveling at a whopping 4,054 mph (6,525 km/h). There are about 4,000 species around the globe that belong to the same family as horse flies, but none of the others come close to matching their speed.
While the speeds of many items on this list have been compared to the average speed of a bullet, researchers actually fired some guns to see whether this fungus was faster. Pilobolus is a foul fungus that reproduces by being consumed by animals. Once it has completed its journey through an animal’s digestive system, it grows fluid-filled bulbs in the animal’s droppings. When enough pressure builds up inside the bulbs, they launch spores onto plants in the surrounding environment to be eaten by new animals.
These spores reach a top speed of about 82 feet per second (25 meters per second), or 56 miles per hour, which is moderately impressive for their tiny size. More impressively, they were captured on film in a BBC experiment accelerating more than 20,000 g’s faster than a vintage Remington rifle’s bullet, which fires at around 9,395 g’s.
Another disgusting, dung-dwelling fungus achieves acceleration of up to 180,000 g’s, according to a paper published in 2008. We might be disgusted by its reproductive process, but coprophilous performs a crucial task for the planet’s habitability by breaking down dung. Like pilobolus, its spores must be consumed by animals to reproduce. This presents a problem; few animals eat in the same spot they do their business, so it needs to blast its spores a good few meters away.
The problem is that this distance is many times its own microscopic diameter. It achieves this by powerfully blasting spores from what is best described as squirt guns. They accelerate at speeds up to 180,000 g’s, which makes them the fastest flyers in nature in terms of acceleration. Interestingly, the paper discovered that the bulbs from which the spores are launched did not contain abnormally high amounts of pressure compared to other species of fungus. This means the way pressure is expelled through the squirt gun mechanism is what causes their remarkable speed.