Every few years the world comes together to celebrate the superhumans among us, those who can run faster, jump higher, lift more and push the limits of what we believe humans can accomplish. For wildlife around the planet, however, the Olympics are a daily event, as animals excel at performing seemingly impossible feats.
Mastering those skills is often the difference between life and death.
We asked a few Global Wildlife Conservation scientists to judge the athleticism in the wildlife kingdom, giving medals for the most astonishing biological talents. Here are the nominees:
Robin Moore, GWC communications director
Gold Medal, Weightlifting: Leafcutter Ants
Leafcutter ants can carry 5,000 times their body weight. If these wee guys were human-sized they could probably lift the entire stadium.
Silver Medal, Long Jump: South African Sharp-nosed Frog
This frog is less than three inches long but can jump 11 feet, or 44 times its body length.
(Photo by Bernard Dupont via Flickr Creative Commons)
Gold Medal, Synchronized Swimming: Western Grebes engaged in a courtship dance
When Western Grebes dance, they seem to walk on water. Here’s how National Geographic describes their courtship: “Western and Clark’s grebes engage in a maneuver called rushing during the spring mating season, in which they sprint up to 66 feet (20 meters) across the water in coordinated groups of two or more in about seven seconds. They’re the largest vertebrates with the ability to walk on water.”
Jim Sanderson, GWC program manager of wild cat conservation
Gold Medal, Heptathlon: Leopard
The leopard is the quintessential cat. It’s lightening fast and can whack your hand twice before you can move your hand, it’s strong and able to pull more than its body weight up a tree, it can jump vertically or jump straight down onto a prey animal’s neck.
Kelsey Neam, GWC Amphibians Red List Officer
Gold Medal, Archery: Limestone Salamander
This salamander and its relatives can flick their tongues at an impressive 14,700 feet per second! Faster than the blink of an eye! They have the longest tongues of any salamanders, which helps them to pick off their insect prey before they can escape. Found only in northern California and threatened by gold mining and quarrying for limestone, this salamander species is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Silver Medal, Archery: Mozambique Spitting Cobra
This snake always aims for the eyes of a threat, shooting off venom that causes burning, stinging and occasionally blindness. These cobras can hit their target with 100 percent accuracy, from 60 centimeters!
Bronze Medal, Archery: Rosette-Nosed Pygmy Chameleon
This tiny lizard can shoot its tongue out 2.5 times the length of its body, at about 8,500 feet per second. This is 20 times faster than the speed of the fastest sports car! Unfortunately, high levels of illegal trade and habitat loss have caused the listing of this chameleon as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Peter Paul van Dijk, GWC associate conservation scientist
Gold Medal, Gymnastics Rings: Any Gibbon Species
Once you’ve seen a brachiating gibbon swing one arm after another across the canopy, nothing else comes close.
Factoid: This swinging does not always go well, and many gibbons show an old broken and healed limb bone. That the animal survives at all with a broken limb strongly suggests that its family members take extra care of their fellow while its arm heals.
Gold Medal, Long Jump: Berdmore’s Narrow-mouthed Frog
Southeast Asia’s Berdmore’s Narrow-mouthed Frog (Microhyla berdmorei) is a 45-mm frog that has no problem jumping 2-3 meters, roughly 60 times its body length. Their jumps may not have been carefully measured, so this is my field estimate. I referred to them as ‘rocket-propelled frogs.’
(Photo by Bernard Dupont via Flickr Creative Commons)
Gold Medal, Spectating: Central American River Turtle
No Olympics would be complete without spectators, and I nominate a champion couch potato: the Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii) of Belize, Guatemala and southern Mexico. We’re beginning to get an idea of this species’ habits, and it seems that it is one of the lowest-exertion species of turtle (at least) known:
It breathes oxygen from the water through papillae in its throat, so it doesn’t really need to swim to the surface to breathe if the water quality is decent and it’s not actively doing something that uses muscle power. It is a pure vegetarian, whose microbial gut flora digests or ferments the fallen leaves and other vegetable debris that it picks up from the river bottom. The turtles tend to position themselves in deep river pools where fallen leaves accumulate, so its food literally comes to it. Great excitement in its life would be to swim to the surface and get some fallen figs or other fruits at the water surface under a fruiting riverside tree.
Regrettably, this sedentary vegetarian lifestyle means that it has ‘white’ meat only, and allegedly tastes wonderfully delicate and sweet. It is thus highly sought after for human consumption (particularly around Easter) and its habits make it predictable for good free-divers to find and collect. It’s rated as Critically Endangered, and being the last surviving species of a once-diverse family, it represents the turtle family with the highest risk of going extinct in recent history (Meiolaniids were probably extirpated by pre-historic humans).