Which animal would win a race between a cheetah or a utahraptor?
February 26, 2011 11:46 PM   Subscribe

Which animal would win a race between a cheetah or a utahraptor? Please help my six-year-old son learn even more about dinosaurs.

My six-year-old son, who knows nearly everything about dinosaurs including their Latin names, wants to know if any dinosaurs would have been faster than a cheetah. Is the cheetah the fastest land animal ever?

I know these questions may seem a little silly, but it is important to my son. Many thanks!

(Next week's question will be for my daughter, age 4, who woke me to ask if birds can sneeze).
posted by MighstAllCruckingFighty to Pets & Animals (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
There's no way to be sure since all fossil reconstructions are approximations. Simulations would have to ne run for all kinds of varibles. No two legged animals today can come anywhere close to cheetahs, so it's heavy odds in their favor, at least for short runs.

I had budgies as a kid and they sneezed on occasion.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:59 PM on February 26, 2011


According to wikipedia, the fossil record for utahraptor is pretty incomplete: the only leg bone recovered so far is a tibia. Given that, there's no way to know for sure.

That said, we can make some guesses. The fastest modern bird, the ostrich, can run at 70 km/h (45 mph), whereas a cheetah can reach 112 and 120 km/h (70 and 75 mph). Already it's not looking good for the utahraptor. Additionally, evidence suggests the utahraptor was considerably larger and more massive than an ostrich, widening the theoretical speed gap.

I don't know if birds can sneeze, but I'm fairly sure that crows can curse.
posted by lekvar at 12:18 AM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Comparing to ostriches is not convincing at all: there are only two types of large land-based flightless birds now, and their speed compares very favourably to most mammals of similar size. Ostriches aren't carnivores and they don't sprint after prey.
posted by rainy at 12:59 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


My cockatiel would sneeze on occasion. I don't know if it's exactly biologically equivalent to a human sneeze (their anatomy is a bit different after all) but in context, sound, and behavior it sure seemed like a sneeze.

Regarding winning a race, there's the whole sprint vs. distance-running thing. A cheetah can outrun a human over a short distance, but a human can outrun a cheetah over a longer distance. Humans can outrun lots of animals actually (cf the "humans as cursorial hunters" theory). I guess your son is really most interested in peak speed, though.
posted by hattifattener at 1:18 AM on February 27, 2011


This paper proposes a model for estimating the speed of the large predatorial pre-historic birds of South America that also suggests the largest (4m) moa of New Zealand could have exceeded 100 km/h. I can't speak to its accuracy, but it's an interesting data point.

(Introduce your son to moa and their main pre-human predator while you're at it. Pity they all got eaten 600 years ago...)

Additionally, evidence suggests the utahraptor was considerably larger and more massive than an ostrich, widening the theoretical speed gap.

A cheetah is considerably larger and more massive than a house cat.
posted by rodgerd at 1:32 AM on February 27, 2011


Comparing to ostriches is not convincing at all

I absolutely agree. I was using that as a starting point. But I don't think my conclusions suffer for it. The utahraptor was a large bipedal animal, with a posture (according to current theories) similar to that of an ostrich. (Dromaeosaurs are thought to be closely related to birds) So, take the general configuration of the ostrich, make it as much as five times as massive, and figure how fast it's going to run.

The PDF rogerd links to is a much more apt comparison though; the largest specimen fits utahraptor's theorized measurements much better, and has SCIENCE! on its side.
posted by lekvar at 1:49 AM on February 27, 2011


Let's imagine that we have found a living utahraptor. We pick our swiftest looking cheetah and take them both to the running track. The first thing we would have to deal with is that these creatures are not going to race each other, for fun, like humans. Instead what will make each one go really fast is having some prey to chase after. They prefer to "race" the animal that they would like to eat! Some animals like wolves (or humans) are all about endurance: they are not so fast but can keep going until their prey tires out. But these animals are sprinters. To have the best chance of getting their lunch they must have reached it before it even realises it is being chased. Failing that it must try to catch it before it has accelerated to its full speed.

So to make a fare comparison we would need something like a greyhound race track with a "hare" that each animal finds particularly tasty. If we tested both animals then we would most probably see that each was stronger in some areas. For example getting to the prey is about speed of acceleration, overall top speed, turning capability while racing and the amount of time that the top speed can be maintained. Since the Utahraptor is a reptile it might only be able to go really fast in the warmth of the sun - so we would need to think about that too. The Utahraptor could probably kill bigger animals than the cheetah.

In the end it would be a little bit like "top trumps". Each animal has a number of different racing criteria and you have to choose exactly which for a face-off.

Regarding your daughter: not sure if birds sneeze. But fish yawn!
posted by rongorongo at 2:00 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Birds sneeze. I used to have a parrot who, like the lovebird in this video, sneezed while taking a bath. One could watch droplets of water fly out of his nostrils (which is why he was sneezing, to get the water out). It was not at all to be confused with his imitation sneezes, which sounded like, "Ahhh ahhhhhh ahhhhhhh CHOOOO!.....Bless you!"
posted by jamaro at 2:34 AM on February 27, 2011


It's an open research problem. This brief essay lays out some of the issues: http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/diapsids/buzz/locomotion.html
posted by polymodus at 2:52 AM on February 27, 2011


Yeah, I was reading up T-Rex locomotion recently (as you do) and it's still a really open question on how fast dinosaurs moved.

My hunch would be the cheetah would win but only over short distances.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:19 AM on February 27, 2011


Thanks everyone for the great answers!

Is there some sort of theoretical maximum speed for a land animal? Would it be possible for some hypothetical optimised animal design to run at over 100mph? I assume the main limiting factors are muscle and bone strength, as well as the efficiency of supplying the muscles with energy and oxygen. Could evolution have developed an axle and wheels, or would that be impossible from a bioengineering standpoint?

I'm just a dad, not a scientist. Sometimes when your kids look at you and you have to tell them that you don't know the answer to their questions, the look of disappointment on their faces is pretty crushing. Maybe I should take more inspiration from Calvin's Dad...

Looks like the cheetah is probably faster than any dinosaur would have been. Is it fair to assume that the cheetah is the fastest animal that has ever lived?

Good to know that birds can sneeze! I don't know why it didn't occur to me to check YouTube - it seems that site is pretty much designed for videos of that sort of thing.

Some of those birds look pretty scary, Rodgerd, I'm sure my son will love hearing about them. Thanks!

Rongorongo - thanks for the fish link. Yes, I know it's pretty much a game of top trumps, but that's how my son seems to like to learn facts about these animals. I suppose for the sake of this hypothetical question we are considering holding a sprint race under optimal racing conditions for each animal.

Many thanks again everyone!
posted by MighstAllCruckingFighty at 5:09 AM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Not real data, but... XKCD once featured math problems in which the velociraptor has a "top speed of 25 m/s" (90 kph, 56 mph). Someone programmed a numerical solution for the second problem. The author got a helpful letter from a paleontologist on raptor safety. (The author also explains that his comics refer to the utahraptor-like dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, not proper velociraptors.)
posted by mbrubeck at 8:05 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Could evolution have developed an axle and wheels, or would that be impossible from a bioengineering standpoint?

I guess it might be possible, but really, really unlikely.

First, I'm not sure how a body would grow that way. The wheel part would have to grow, then disconnect somehow to prevent nerves and blood vessels from wrapping up around the "axle." Perhaps a ball and socket type arrangement? A spherical bone-like orb grows in a socket, then detaches and moves freely within the socket with the aid of some kind of natural lubricant? If it gets damaged, I can't imagine an easy way for a body to effect repairs other than dumping the whole thing and growing a new one...

Second, I'm not sure how useful a wheel would really be to an animal. Most of the world is not very wheel-friendly; imagine trying to rollerskate in a field, or up a mountain.

Given a very specific environment I suppose it would be possible for a wheeled animal to evolve, but I can't think of how that would be an advantage over legs/feet in most cases.
posted by Menthol at 8:17 AM on February 27, 2011


Comparing to ostriches is not convincing at all

I absolutely agree. I was using that as a starting point. But I don't think my conclusions suffer for it. The utahraptor was a large bipedal animal, with a posture (according to current theories) similar to that of an ostrich. (Dromaeosaurs are thought to be closely related to birds) So, take the general configuration of the ostrich, make it as much as five times as massive, and figure how fast it's going to run.


Other big cats have similar build to cheetahs and yet run slower than ostriches. The point is that you're comparing a fastest animal out of sampling size of 2 to the fastest animal out of a sampling size of, I guess a few hundred? (mammals of that size). And neither of these 2 birds is a sprinting predator.

It seems like cheetah isn't the fastest animal as Sailfish seems to be capable of at least 80mph, possibly more as cheetahs are studied much more extensively and their speed is easier to measure.
posted by rainy at 9:19 AM on February 27, 2011


In regard to wheels: the question is not why animals did not develop wheels but why did humans develop them? Humans had a need for a method of carrying large volumes of stuff over long distances economically, given the ability to build flat, rain-proof roads and ease of manufacturing of large number of wooden, perfectly round wheels -- they're the best practical solution. It's more like social structure + stone roads + wheels. It's not about speed at all.

For animals, kangaroo's locomotion is a similarly economical solution. A kangaroo bounces, lands and recovers large portion of spent energy for the next bounce - very efficient over long distances. For humans it'd be much harder to develop similar technology with a two-legged springy carriage with a gyroscopic sensors and multiprocessors to adapt to changing terrain. Basically, a much more complex version of segway. It wouldn't need roads and could jump over obstacles but it's much easier to slap four wheels on a platform. Kangaroos, on the other hand, already had a brain and ability to jump even before they evolved current way of locomotion.

Four-legged runners are not as efficient over long distances but can have higher top speed and maneuverability, and, in fact, all animals are much more maneuverable than a ford mustang even on a car's preferred surface.
posted by rainy at 9:35 AM on February 27, 2011


My brother used to want to know "Who would win? A great white shark or a tyrannosaurus rex?" He asked often enough that I can still hear him asking it 20 years later.

Anyway, here's the answer to your daughter's question. Chick sneezes. Chicken hiccups.
posted by aniola at 9:57 AM on February 27, 2011


Ostriches aren't carnivores and they don't sprint after prey.

So what? Evolution favors hunters just as equally as it favors hunted. It must be this way, otherwise over time there would only be predators and no prey.

I'd pick four legs over two any day of the week on land.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:34 AM on February 27, 2011


A most important question! Nobody really knows, due to lack of evidence. But, for your reference ...

You can browse dinosaur locomotion for some perspectives on how the question might be approached from a research standpoint.

From a general design standpoint, the quadrupeds can probably put more of their body into a sprint. So my WAG is the cheetah, as a quadruped optimized for sprints, has a higher top speed.

Unless the race goes over a 1000 foot cliff - then maybe the utahraptor would fall faster due to a higher mass to air resistance ratio.
posted by coffeefilter at 11:28 AM on February 27, 2011


Could evolution have developed an axle and wheels, or would that be impossible from a bioengineering standpoint?

When they get older, you should read them the His Dark Materials series. I think the explanation for the evolution of the wheeled elephants is in the second or third book.
posted by the latin mouse at 12:08 PM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Could evolution have developed an axle and wheels, or would that be impossible from a bioengineering standpoint?

Wikipedia has a pretty good write up about rotating locomotion in living systems.
posted by jamaro at 12:35 PM on February 27, 2011


Ostriches aren't carnivores and they don't sprint after prey.

So what? Evolution favors hunters just as equally as it favors hunted. It must be this way, otherwise over time there would only be predators and no prey.


What? I never said evolution favors hunters. I'm saying you have to compare apples with apples, i.e. fastest carnivore of one type to fastest carnivore of the other type.

A carnivore that feeds by overcoming prey with speed by definition has to have a much faster sprint than its prey. If it starts the chase from 20 meters away and is 1 m/s faster than an antelope, it will take it 20 seconds to catch up - prey animal just needs to be fast enough to keep at least some distance away until cheetah runs out of steam. The risk of even slight injury is also more grave for the cheetah - it needs to be in top shape to get food while antelopes can eat plants while healing. Logically, carnivore needs to be *much* faster, and that's exactly what we see in case of cheetah; and the fastest fish - Sailfish - is also a carnivore.
posted by rainy at 1:01 PM on February 27, 2011


I'm saying you have to compare apples with apples

But there's no way we can do that in this case, which is why it's such an interesting question, and also the reason got the sweeping generalizations.

A carnivore that feeds by overcoming prey with speed by definition has to have a much faster sprint than its prey.

Also true, but there's no evidence that this is how utahraptor hunted. It could have been an ambush hunter or a carrion eater.
posted by lekvar at 4:57 PM on February 27, 2011


lekvar: I completely agree with that; I was just pointing out that looking at ostriches vs. cheetahs tells us nothing in this case. I also assumed (perhaps wrongly) that the question implies "fastest utahraptor or a similar carnivore dinosaur". I imagine there must have been some species that did rely on speed as that's an available niche for predators and evolution tends to fill niches.
posted by rainy at 5:18 PM on February 27, 2011


Is there some sort of theoretical maximum speed for a land animal?...Could evolution have developed an axle and wheels, or would that be impossible from a bioengineering standpoint?

First of all, biology did develop axle/wheel systems, or at least rotational propulsive systems. Organisms with flagella, for instance, have a shaft/collar system that lets the flagella rotate in the cellular wall, all the way around, like a propeller. Works great for unicellular organisms that live in water, but my guess is natural selection doesn't favor the development of wheels for land dwellers unless you live on Road Planet.

Second, it seems implicit in the way you've put things above that axles/wheels is definitely the faster way to go vs. muscles/legs. I'm not sure that's true, at least, not without some additional assumptions about distance, surface, etc. I don't know the actual answer to your question, but I remember, when I was a kid, I was reading an issue of Car & Driver and someone from a zoo had written in to ask what the fastest-accelerating car in the world was _from 0-40mph_. The reason was to compare it to a cheetah. Apparently, in addition to having a really high top speed over short distances, cheetahs' acceleration from a dead stop is crazy. If I recall correctly, while there were cars that could beat the cheetah in 0-60 times, there were none that could beat it in 0-40 time. This was a long time ago though, cars have gotten a lot faster since then. My point, really, is that without making some assumptions about the surface (say, that you are on a paved drag strip) it seems plausible that legs could be a better way to put power on the ground than wheels, especially if we're just looking at acceleration from a dead stop.
posted by jeb at 6:23 PM on February 27, 2011


For anyone interested in biological rotary locomotion, that wikipedia article mentioned above is a good introductory read. And anyone who is convinced that it's impossible for a biological organism to evolve a method of rotary locomotion really ought to consider the case of the tumbleweed.
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:38 PM on February 27, 2011


When they get older, you should read them the His Dark Materials series. I think the explanation for the evolution of the wheeled elephants is in the second or third book.

Third book, "mulefa". I think Philip Pullman spent quite a while pondering how the evolution of a wheeled creature might come about.
posted by rongorongo at 12:39 AM on February 28, 2011


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