Meet Nature’s Olympians

The best athletes and sportspeople in the world are competing in Tokyo at this moment, combining fitness, skill, speed, stamina, focus and more in the ultimate test of athletic ability. Meanwhile, Mother Nature’s athletes compete every day to thrive and survive. Let’s meet some of them!


Running is an incredibly important skill for many animals. They need to run for cover, to escape predators, or to catch their food.


Image of two young cheetahs grooming each other by Arturo de Frias Marques

The fastest animal on land is also probably one of the most famous; the cheetah! Cheetahs live in arid environments like grassland and desert across the continent of Africa primarily. They need their speed to hunt prey like Impala and Gazelle, and can reach speeds up to an incredible 103 km/h. Classed as Vulnerable, they’re threatened by human activity and decreasing habitat.


Okay, technically flying isn’t currently part of the Olympic Games, but if it were, then the peregrine falcon would win it every time! These beautiful, majestic birds of prey live across Europe which is great news because it means you’ll probably be able to spot one in the UK if you look in the right places!

Peregrine falcon

Peregrine falcon in Alaska, photo by the USFWS

Peregrine falcons thrive in a wide range of environments from grasslands to forest, and they prey on other birds, small mammals, reptiles and insects. You can even find them living in cities and the urban environment, where they’ll sometimes nest on ledges on the sides of tall buildings. Their signature move is known as a ‘stoop’; they fly to a great height then dive straight down through the air, reaching speeds over 320km/h. This is used to capture their bird prey; they’ll hit a bird with one of their wings, literally knocking it out of the sky, then collect the stunned animal to eat. Because the forces on the body travelling this speed creates are so violent, Peregrine falcon’s have some incredibly physical adaptations like little bony projections in their nostrils to avoid the air pressure damaging their lungs.


There are many animals with amazing adaptations for swimming


The beautiful Sailfish, image by Citron CC Creative Commons

When it comes to sprinting underwater, the Sailfish is the fish with the speediest swim. They have a long, sharp nose spike and a beautiful huge fin on their back that’s almost as tall as they are and brightly coloured. They can reach speeds of up to 60km/h when hunting for their favourite prey, small fish like Sardines. They shoot into the school of fish and either spear their prey with the their long nose spike or slash it from side-to-side

Cuvier’s Beaked Whale

An illustration of Cuvier’s Beaked Whale by NOAA

The marine creatures with the deepest dive and the record for holding their breath the longest are also among the most mysterious of the ocean’s inhabitants. Cuvier’s Beaked Whale is one of the smaller whales out there, and while big whales are famous for their deep dives, they don’t dive as deep as this species! They’ve been recorded swimming down to depths of 1.7 miles, but it’s thought they probably swim to over 2.5 miles, except the monitoring equipment doesn’t work below 2 miles currently! To reach this depth takes about 30 minutes each direction, so they can easily hold their breath for over an hour. Impressive stuff!

Sadly, these beautiful marine mammals are under threat from things like oil and gas exploration, and from sonar.



Toxotes jaculatrix or the Archerfish by Chrumps, CC BY-SA 3.0

Did you know that fish are good at archery? Well, one fish in particular, and it’s even called the Archerfish. It’s actually a family of closely-related fish species, all called Archerfish, and they get their name from the very special way they hunt their prey. When they spot something tasty like a spider or insect, they shoot a jet of water from their mouths to knock it into the water, where they can gobble it up.


There’s one species of animal that’s famous for boxing, and that’s hares. The males fight or ‘box’ each other in the spring time, and literally sit up on their hind legs and throw punches. But while they may have the practice, when it comes to the animal Olympics, one animal has the upper hand…

Mantis shrimp

Image by Roy L. Caldwell, Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley – National Science Foundation

…or rather, upper limb, because the boxing crown goes to the Mantis shrimp. It’s not actually a shrimp, but another type of crustacean known as Stomatopods, and it’s nicknames include ‘thumb splitter’ and ‘prawn killer’! While they look beautiful with stunning, bright colours, they have a deadly secret. If threatened, or if another Mantis shrimp invades their territory, they whip or punch out with a pair of club-like front legs. They do this as quick as a speeding bullet, literally, and it’s so fast that it causes little bubbles to be formed. If the punch, which has a force of 100 times the Mantis shrimp’s weight, doesn’t knock their opponent away, then there’s a double whammy coming their way. When those little bubbles pop, they release another powerful shockwave. What amazing animals!




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