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Usain Bolt A cheetah would leave even Usain Bolt, the fastest human, in the dust. (Mark Dadswell / Getty Images)

Olympians vs. Animals

At this summer’s Olympic Games in London, the world’s best athletes will compete against each other. But what if they went head-to-head against animals instead?

<p>TOP: Hossein Rezazadeh of Iran clinches the world record by lifting nearly twice his weight. (Mitsuhiko Imamori / Minden Pictures)</p><p> BOTTOM: A rhino beetle can lift 850 times its own weight. (Vladimir Rys / Bongarts / Getty Images)</p>

TOP: Hossein Rezazadeh of Iran clinches the world record by lifting nearly twice his weight. (Mitsuhiko Imamori / Minden Pictures)

BOTTOM: A rhino beetle can lift 850 times its own weight. (Vladimir Rys / Bongarts / Getty Images)

OLYMPIC SPRINTER VS. CHEETAH

All cats are speedy runners, but cheetahs are sprinting specialists. They can run up to 113 kilometers (70 miles) per hour—faster than any other land animal. A cheetah’s slender body, small head, and thin legs all help to minimize drag, a slowing force.

To keep from slipping during a chase, cheetahs have hard pads on their paws. The cat’s claws work like cleats on a sprinter’s track shoes. Together, the pads and claws provide traction as cheetahs run.

Gold medalist Usain Bolt of Jamaica holds the world record for the 100-meter dash. He ran it in 9.58 seconds. But a cheetah can cover the same distance in 6.13 seconds. We declare the cheetah champ!

RHINO BEETLE VS OLYMPIC WEIGHT LIFTER

When it comes to lifting weights, rhino beetles outmuscle the competition. These insects can lift 850 times their own weight. In comparison, Olympian weight lifters can lift nearly twice their own weight. How do the beetles do it?

“They have strong muscles in the front part of their body,” says insect scientist Donna Stockton. Plus, a flat area on their legs provides leverage when the beetles attempt to move or lift something, says Stockton. It’s like a lever on a simple machine, giving the beetles more power while lifting an object.

The result: We wouldn’t ask a rhino beetle to arm wrestle.

OLYMPIC SWIMMER VS. SAILFISH

Named for the large sail-like fin on their backs, sailfish are the fastest swimmers around! They can shoot through the water at a startling 55.5 kilometers (34.5 miles) per hour.

The sailfish’s super speeds come from its strong, streamlined body. Special grooves allow the fish to draw in its fins, making its body sleek and smooth. This minimizes water resistance, or drag, which slows swimmers down. With features like this, sailfish beat out our top human swimmers any day.

Want to put it to the test? American gold medalist Michael Phelps swims the 200-meter freestyle in 1.42 minutes. The sailfish could swim the same distance in 13 seconds! Even the record-holding Phelps isn’t competition for the sailfish.

FLEA VS. OLYMPIC HIGH JUMPER

When it comes to jumping, fleas outperform most animals. Some species of fleas can jump up to 23 times their own height!

How do they do it? The muscles that fleas use to power their jumps contract slowly. The force the muscles produce is stored as energy in parts of the flea’s skeleton. The sudden release of this stored energy unfolds the insect’s back legs and flings its tiny body into the air.

“In the energy stores, fleas have a rubber-like material that is almost the perfect elastic,” says insect scientist Malcolm Burrows. “This restores the body to its original shape, ready for another jump.”

How do humans compare? Javier Sotomayor of Cuba is the world-record holder for the high jump. His record jump of 2.5 meters (8 feet) is only 1.3 times his height. Relative to body size, the flea is the clear winner.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of SuperScience. For more from SuperScience, click here.

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