Gold medalists of the natural world

27 July 2012 | Article

Running, jumping and diving is on everyone’s mind these days as the London 2012 Olympic Games kick off and the world watches the best human athletes compete. But humans aren’t the only ones that display incredible feats of athleticism–today IUCN offers up the gold medalists of the animal kingdom.

These animal athletes, some of which are listed as threatened on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, are the fastest sprinters, the highest jumpers and the most graceful gymnasts in the natural world.

Beginning with the track and field events, the Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus),would take gold in the 100m—reaching speeds of up to 70mph in short bursts. In comparison, Usain Bolt, the fastest human sprinter, can reach a speed of 27.7mph (44.6km/h). Over long distances, the Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) completes an impressive marathon every year, with some individuals flying over 80,000km between their summer breeding grounds in the Arctic and their wintering sites in Antarctica.

Elsewhere on the athletics field, the Common Froghopper (Philaenus spumarius) could win gold for the high jump as it can jump 115 times its own height. This is equivalent to a human jumping 200m! Taking part in the throwing events using a technique that does not strictly follow the rules of shot put, the Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), also known as a Bearded Vulture, drops large bones from great heights to shatter them and eat the nutritious marrow inside.

Performing in the gymnastics events, the graceful Agile Gibbon (Hylobates agilis) and dancing birds-of-paradise (Paradisaeidae family) would wow us with their gold-standard moves. The Agile Gibbon, which is listed as Endangered on The IUCN Red List, moves gracefully from tree to tree in the forest by moving its forearms alternately to swing between branches. Male birds-of-paradise use their gymnastic skills and brightly coloured feathers - which wouldn’t look out of place on a gymnast’s leotard - to impress females and win a chance to mate.

Displaying its strength in the boxing ring is the European Hare (Lepus europaeus). During mating season – which is known as “March Madness” – females choose their partners according to their strength by “boxing” with them—when females and males stand on their hind legs and hit each other with their paws. Only strong males impress the females and get the chance to mate.

One of the strongest animals in world is the Rhinoceros Beetle (Xyloryctes thestalus), which can carry loads of more than 30 times its body mass. In comparison, the heaviest individual weight lifted by a human in an Olympic competition was 263.5kg by Hossein Rezazadeh, a weight that was about one and a half times his own bodyweight and equivalent to lifting four average-sized people.

The mythical home of the Twelve Olympians, Gods of the ancient Greek world, is Mount Olympus. Found growing at Mount Olympus and in just one other location in the world is the fungus Zeus olympius which only grows on dead branches of the pine tree Pinus leucodermis.

While celebrating the achievements of talented athletes across the world this summer, we should also take the time to appreciate these incredible species.

Below you can find extra information, other events and more incredible animal athletes.

Archery - Smallscale Archerfish (Toxotes microlepis) Archerfish shoot down land based insects (flying insects or insects on branches) and other small animals with water shot from their specialized mouths. This species is found in Southeast Asia along the shores of flowing or standing fresh or brackish water with overhanging vegetation. The Smallscale Archerfish is listed as Least Concern on The IUCN Red List.

Artistic gymnastics - Agile Gibbon (Hylobates agilis) Gibbons are famous for their graceful gymnastic movements that parallel the agility of gymnasts performing on the uneven bars. Living in forests in Sumatra, Peninsular Malaysia and south Thailand, the Agile Gibbon moves from tree to tree by moving its forearms alternately to swing between branches. There are currently 16 species of gibbon on The IUCN Red List and the Agile Gibbon is listed as Endangered.

Boxing - European Hare (Lepus europaeus) The European Hare mating season peaks in spring during a time called “March Madness.” Females choose their partners according to their strength by “boxing” with them—when females and males stand on their hind legs and hit each other with their paws. As females are slightly larger than males, only strong males impress the females and get the chance to mate. The European Hare is listed as Least Concern on The IUCN Red List.

Diving - Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) One of the fastest species in the world, the Peregrine Falcon can reach up to 200mph (320km/h) when diving through the sky in hot pursuit of its prey. The fastest ever dive recorded was 242mph (390km/h). Found across the globe except in Antarctica, this species is listed as Least Concern on The IUCN Red List.

Equestrian - Yellow-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus africanus) and Red-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) Oxpeckers are two species of bird that ride on the backs of African grazing mammals, eating ticks and other parasites living on their host. The relationship between oxpeckers and the mammals they perch on is generally beneficial to both, but may be detrimental to the mammals in some cases. The Yellow-billed Oxpecker and Red-billed Oxpecker are both listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

High jump - Common Froghopper (Philaenus spumarius) This insect, which is common throughout Britain, has developed an extraordinary jump that allows it to leap out of the way of predators or animals grazing on the plants they call home. The force a Common Froghopper exerts at take-off is 400 times their body weight and the highest jumpers can reach 700mm–115 times their body length—which is like a human jumping 200m! This species has not yet been assessed for The IUCN Red List.

Javelin - Indian Crested Porcupine (Hystrix indica) Porcupines may have javelin-like spines, but unlike Olympic athletes they do not hurl them through the air. The porcupine’s spines help it to regulate its temperature and are also used for defense. When it feels threatened, a porcupine will raise its quills to make itself look bigger. The Indian Crested Porcupine is recorded in Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean through southwest and central Asia (including Afghanistan and Turkmenistan) to Pakistan, India, Nepal, China and Sri Lanka and is listed as Least Concern on The IUCN Red List.

Marathon - Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) This bird migrates from the high Arctic where it breeds in summer to its Antarctic wintering grounds each year—with some individuals flying more than 80,000km annually! During their lives, Arctic Terns, which can live for more than 30 years, travel a distance that is equivalent to approximately three return journeys to the moon and back. The Arctic Tern is listed as Least Concern on The IUCN Red List.

Sailing - Sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus) Sailfish have a large dorsal fin which has the appearance of a sail, hence its name. The fin runs along the length of its body and when extended, it is taller than the width of the body. The Atlantic population of the Sailfish is sometimes referred to as Istiophorus albicans, while the Indo-Pacific population is called Istiophorus platypterus, but there is no genetic evidence to indicate they are two separate species. The Sailfish is listed as Least Concern on The IUCN Red List.

Shooting - Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) The ripe fruits of the Himalayan Balsam open explosively with a popping sound, ‘shooting’ the seeds to some distance. A prolific seed producer, each plant produces about 2,500 seeds and its dispersal technique helps the plant colonize new areas. Native to the Himalayas, but naturalized in Europe and elsewhere, it tends to become an invasive species and out-compete other plants. It has not yet been assessed for The IUCN Red List.

Shot Put - Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus) The Lammergeier, also known as a Bearded Vulture, is a bird of prey and one of the largest of the old world vultures. This bird wins the prize for shot put because it drops large bones from great heights in order to shatter them and eat the nutritious marrow inside. This species can be found in ranges from southern Europe through the Middle East to northeastern China, and also occurs in parts of north, east and southern Africa. The Lammergeier is listed as Least Concern on The IUCN Red List.

Sprinting - Cheetah
(Acinonyx jubatus) The Cheetah is the fastest land mammal in the world and can reach speeds of up to 70mph (113km/h) in short sprints. In comparison, Usain Bolt, the fastest human sprinter, can reach a speed of 27.7mph (44.6km/h). Listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, this species is found across Africa, with a subspecies (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) in Iran that is listed as Critically Endangered.

Rhythmic gymnastics - Birds-of-paradise (Paradisaeidae family) Birds-of-paradise are famous for their colourful feathers and dance-like displays which are reminiscent of gymnasts in their brightly coloured leotards. Male birds-of-paradise compete for the attention of females in courtship behaviour known as “lekking.” Lekking involves males, either individually or in groups, showing off their feathers, hopping, head bopping and shaking their delicate long streamer-like plumage. If a male manages to impress a female he is rewarded with an opportunity to mate. Found in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, there are 40 species of birds-of-paradise in the family Paradisaeidae listed on The IUCN Red List of which three, Black Sicklebill (Epimachus fastuosus), Blue Bird-of-paradise (Paradisaea rudolphi) and Wahnes’s Parotia (Parotia wahnesi) are listed as threatened.

Triathlon - Galapagos Marine Iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) You won’t see this species riding a bike, but the Galapagos Marine Iguana is the only lizard in the world that you will see running on land and swimming beneath the ocean waves. In pursuit of marine algae to eat, large males are capable of swimming to depths of 20m and staying underwater for 30 minutes. After feeding in the cold seawater, marine iguanas sunbath on land to warm up again. The Galapagos Marine Iguana is listed as Vulnerable on The IUCN Red List.

Weightlifting - Rhinoceros Beetle (Xyloryctes thestalus) This beetle is able to carry loads of more than 30 times its body mass and is among the strongest animals on earth. In comparison, the heaviest individual weight lifted by a human in an Olympic competition was 263.5kg by Hossein Rezazadeh, a weight that was about one and a half times his own bodyweight and equivalent to lifting four average-sized people. Found in Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico, this species has not yet been assessed for The IUCN Red List.

From the mythical home of the Olympian Greek Gods - Zeus olympius Zeus olympius is a species of fungus that until this year was only found on Mount Olympus, the mythical home of the Twelve Olympians of the ancient Greek world. This fungus is found growing on dead branches of the pine tree Pinus leucodermis and was recently discovered in a second location in south-west Bulgaria near the Greek border. This species has not yet been assessed for The IUCN Red List.

For more information please contact:

Maggie Roth, IUCN Media Relations, m +1 202 262 5313, e maggie.roth@iucn.org;
Camellia Williams, IUCN Species Programme Communications, IUCN, t +41 22 999 0154, e camellia.williams@iucn.org 


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