What's faster than a hummingbird's wings?
January 13, 2012 4:46 PM   Subscribe

Question from my seven-year-old son: "Are a hummingbird's wings the fastest thing on something that breathes?"

I expect that the answer starts with "It depends on what you mean by fast" but I haven't found a conclusive answer for any definition of fast.
posted by winston to Science & Nature (28 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (Though I did find that a hummingbird's heart has a higher RPM than the wings)
posted by winston at 4:47 PM on January 13, 2012

Estimates of hummingbird wing tips' maximum speeds range from 300 to 500 inches per second, or a little more than 28 miles per hour. They only appear to be so fast because they're so small. Many, many breathing animals have faster-moving parts, such as the ball-and-socket joints in people's shoulders when they throw a ball.
posted by cgc373 at 4:55 PM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

A nerve impulse can travel upwards of 100 m/s (~220 miles per hour).
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:56 PM on January 13, 2012

Bee's wings, or any number of insects wings, would seem to be faster. Do you want to filter it to mammals?
posted by artdrectr at 4:56 PM on January 13, 2012

How's this: The beat their wings at up to 80 times per second (Wikipedia). Now, let's generously guess that there's 5 inches of movement in each beat. That's 80*5 = 400 inches per second. 400 inches per second is around 22 miles per hour. Lots of animals run faster than that.
posted by ManInSuit at 4:56 PM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Dammit. cgc373's research was faster than my guessing.

Other stuff faster than that: A really fast pitcher throws a fastball at around 100mph, so presumably the pitcher's hand is moving at that speed. For that matter: An 8-year-old can apparently throw a ball at 40 mph. So the list of things that can move faster than a hummingbird's wing would likely include your seven-year-old's own hand.
posted by ManInSuit at 5:02 PM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

(On reflection: My point about throwing a ball was also basically included in cgc373's initial response. If your 7-year old asks "is there anything faster than maninsuit", the answer is clearly "cgc373".)
posted by ManInSuit at 5:04 PM on January 13, 2012 [8 favorites]

There are lizards that can whip their tails fast enough to strike an injurious blow to a human, and there is a theory that some or all sauropod dinosaurs can whip their tails fast enough to produce a crack. The crack is a tiny sonic boom, meaning that if true, these creatures were moving their tails right up to the speed of sound, around 700-800 mph.
posted by Sunburnt at 5:17 PM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was curious about the chameleon's tongue, but apparently it only hits about 14mph.

You might be more interested in acceleration rather than speed, since it's the quick change of direction that makes the hummingbird impressive (ditto the chameleon's tongue), not how fast the wings actually move.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 5:25 PM on January 13, 2012

Salamander tongues, according to this, clock in at under 20 mph.
posted by ManInSuit at 5:27 PM on January 13, 2012

I wish I had asked such great questions when I was his age!

As others have mentioned, the hummingbird wings can flap on the order of 10-20 mph, and lots of animals beat that. My favorite fast-moving animal is the Pistol Shrimp. He has two asymmetric claws, one of which is ridiculously large. This claw can move at around 60 miles per hour (larger video clip).

60mph onlyrivals any of the speeds seen in most other animals, with cheetas moving faster. However, water is much more viscous than air. Ask your son if it's more impressive to run 60mph, or to run 60mph underwater.

What's amazing about this is isn't the speed: it's that that the high speed produces a cavitation bubble to disable their prey. That's right, they don't grab their prey with the claw, they implode the water next to the prey's head, knocking it unconscious. There's no equivalent on land. It's quite a cool animal.

While that's pretty fast, your son needs to answer a question of his own: does the pistol shrimp count as an animal that "breathes"?

posted by bessel functions seem unnecessarily complicated at 5:27 PM on January 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Trap jaw ants can snap their jaws at 35-64 m/s (or 78-145 miles per hour)
posted by dhruva at 5:38 PM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Channelling my inner 7-year-old, I love this question. What a great opportunity to use google and find out together (having checked the search terms that bring up the results - including videos - in advance, or bookmarking them)! The initial maths to work out the hummingbird wing speed may be beyond him, but as a parent you can be the oracle on that.

So what might be faster? How fast can Usain Bolt run? What about Oscar Pistorius with his artificial legs? (One day I'm sure we'll invent artificial legs that work better than real legs, but not just yet.) What about a cheetah, they're supposed to be fast? What about a gazelle? (Why are there still gazelles around if they're slower than cheetahs and cheetahs eat gazelles? no regrets, coyote covers that and brings it back to hummingbirds as well) Get him to guess other animals that he thinks are fast. Give suggestions. What about a salamander's tongue? (What's a salamander? Are chameleons salamanders?) What about ants? What about dinosaurs? I hear there are dinosaurs whose tails moved so fast it made a sound like cracking a whip! Most 7 year olds love dinosaurs. (Why does it make that noise? It's like thunder. What causes thunder?) What about animals that live in water? (bessel functions has got the hang of it)

Enjoy! I wish there was google when I was 7. I only had my parents, and Encyclopedia Britannica (for when my parents didn't know the answer and wanted me out of their hair for a couple of hours)
posted by finding.perdita at 5:51 PM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Gah - someone beat me to the trapdoor ant!
posted by cromagnon at 5:53 PM on January 13, 2012

Came to vote for trap jaw ants.
posted by beccaj at 6:35 PM on January 13, 2012

Unfortunately, dog (and the much faster mouse) skin shaking to dry is counted in Hz (measuring oscillations per second) rather than mph, and I'm not up to complicated conversions tonight. But your son will probably enjoy the videos associated.
posted by theplotchickens at 7:07 PM on January 13, 2012

i just wanted to mention the mantis shrimp, which apparently can punch >50mph.
posted by pemberkins at 7:13 PM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

You also need to define the nature of the speed contest.

After all, a man can outrun a horse ... at a marathon distance.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:06 PM on January 13, 2012

Response by poster: Great answers!

So we've got examples of faster movements in terms of MPH, for both sprint and distance.

We've got the nerve impulse which beats everything.

We've got examples of movements that have more oscillations per second in the sprint category, and the insect wings in the distance category -- but does the insects' respiration count as breathing? ("on anything that breathes" in the original question)
posted by winston at 9:50 PM on January 13, 2012

You could limit it to vertebrates, i.e. creatures with an internal backbone, since they have lungs or gills and a breathing mechanism which is recognisable to your seven year old. But it could be argued that what insects to be doing is a form of breathing, air gets in and exchanges with bodily fluid and provides oxygen etc to cells. It just doesn't have the same kind of cyclical mechanism that you're expecting. Clearly you're not limiting it to mammals as suggested above, given hummingbirds aren't mammals.

Your whole problem is really one of definition. The question as it stands is very vague. What do you mean by breathing? What do you mean by fast (speed, acceleration)? What do you mean by movement? A nerve impulse is an electrical current involving chemical neurotransmitters, there are probably other types of signals travelling through a body which occur very fast too. But maybe you actually meant mechanical movement? You could even argue about which bit of the wing is relevant, the tip being waved around or the bone moving that wing tip or the muscles moving the joint?

This isn't a bad problem to have and it is a good question. I think it would be fun to discuss with your son the different options and work out how to define what he's really asking about. This is how science works, you need a clear problem before you can find a solution, so teaching him to think like that can only be a good thing.
posted by shelleycat at 3:07 AM on January 14, 2012

I can't think of a reasonable definition of breathing that would exclude insects. They inhale oxygen and exhale CO2. Fundamentally they have all the same metabolic processes as all animals. They just lack lungs. The only animals that I think should be excluded would be the aquatic ones. I came to say that wasp wings are probably the fastest wings, clocking in at about 400 cycles per second and creating the characteristic buzzing sound. But if we are using miles per hour as the standard, they probably fall short of the other examples in thread.
posted by Lame_username at 4:30 AM on January 14, 2012

The only animals that I think should be excluded would be the aquatic ones.

But they take in oxygen and remove CO2 as well using specific physiological apparatus and mechanisms, and it's no more or less like breathing than insects (insects don't inhale, the gas diffuses in or out through holes in their exoskeleton).
posted by shelleycat at 5:37 AM on January 14, 2012

I recently learned that the midges that pollinate cocoa trees have the most wing beats per second at 1,000.

While googling for a reference, I came across this article in Popular Science - Maximum Velocity: A Compendium of the Fastest Things the World Has to Offer. There aren't too many animals on there, but may still interest your son.
posted by youngergirl44 at 7:17 AM on January 14, 2012

We've got the nerve impulse which beats everything.

If you want even faster, the enzymes in your body help biochemical reactions take place on the scale of femtoseconds. But it might be tough to visualize it or otherwise explain to a seven-year old without building on other knowledge. Shelleycat has a point about limiting the scope of the discussion as a good way to build a foundation for what scientific inquiry really means, if you want to take it in that direction.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:18 AM on January 14, 2012

EXCELLENT QUESTION! the answer is "it depends", as previous posters have shown, mainly on the definitions of "fastest", "thing", and "breathes".
posted by Tom-B at 1:13 PM on January 14, 2012

A peregrine falcon is the fastest moving whole animal.
posted by roofus at 2:08 PM on January 14, 2012

Also what about this: If a cheetah can run at say, 70mph, its feet must be doing more than that at times. This is because they touch the ground (foot speed =0mph) and then lift and move forward to touch the ground ahead (foot speed >70mph). Anyone care to analyse the motion of a cheetah's foot?
posted by muckybob at 1:36 AM on January 16, 2012

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