Andy Crory, from the Ulster Wildlife Trust, presents local wildlife athletes worthy of a gold medal for a range of impressive, if not, record breaking abilities.
When you’re watching the Olympics this summer, gasping in awe at the human body being pushed to its physical limits, just remember that nature got there first and always has the edge in terms of speed, agility, strength and endurance.
Diving Human beings take the high dive from a height of 10m, very impressive I think you’d agree. The gannet, however, takes this to another level and dives to a depth of 19.7m from a height of 30m and even dislocates its wings for that clean and crisp perfect 10.0 dive every time. Sperm whales, a very rare visitor to Irish waters, can dive down to 3000m, but unfortunately they don't make Olympic swimming pools this deep!
The current human world record holder can run 100m in 9.58 seconds. This is nothing compared to a green tiger beetle with a speed (for its size) equivalent to a horse running at 250km/h – that’s the same as doing 100m in 1.44 seconds! If there was a medal for ferocity this creature would probably win it too - well, they don’t call it a tiger beetle for nothing!
Every article about world record breaking animals has to mention peregrine falcons at some stage – it’s hard not to, they can dive at a speed of 322km/hour (200 mph) making them just about the fastest thing on the planet - apart from the green tiger beetle, of course! I like ducks, however, and it pleases me no end that the fastest level flight of any bird is that of the red-breasted merganser, which trips the light fantastic at a top speed of 47km/hour.
There are quite a few contenders for the endurance category. Arctic terns migrate from the Antarctic to the Arctic and back again annually – a distance of around 44,000 miles! That’s okay for the tern though, as at least it can have a sit down every now and then. Perhaps the greatest marathon champion though has to be the common swift. From the moment the juvenile swift leaves its nest in mid-summer, it stays on the wing at least until the next year. It feeds, sleeps and breeds on the wing – the only time it touches the ground again is to incubate its clutch of eggs!
Or as some people like to call it: fighting. A good contender is our very own Irish hare. Folklore had it that males fought to impress females, but it’s actually the female hare fending off unwanted advances by over-excited males. On the other hand, have you ever seen two coots have a battering match? They really go for each other. That’s all put in the shade by the humble, yet deadly, garden robin. They’ll sometimes fight each other to the death over ownership of a worm – it doesn’t really get anymore hardcore than that!
Another category that should be an Olympic sport but isn’t. You might assume that the animal with the greatest sense of smell must be a fox, but actually insects have a much greater sense of smell than any mammal. I have no idea which insect is the real record holder, but the goat moth must come pretty close. Experiments have shown that the male goat moth is able to follow the pheromones released by a female over a distance of at least 11 miles, picking out individual molecules using their highly sensitive antennae!
Camouflage and Stealth
The ones that come up trumps for me every time in this category are micro moths. When you catch one there’s a 50:50 chance you won’t be able to identify it without dissection and they have an un-nerving ability to disappear from view in the blink of an eye. I think micro moths may be some of the most intelligent creatures in the universe and some of them are very pretty too!
A category that in a perfect world would not exist at all, but we are where we are and can only try and manage as best we can. It’s a tough bet on which would be the most invasive: Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed, floating pennywort, zebra mussel, grey squirrel? In fact, they’re all as bad as each other and as such, I think they don’t deserve any medals at all - I’d have them all disqualified!
It’s a no-brainer this one. Yes, blue whales are the biggest but we don’t see too many of them around our shores, so it has to be the oak tree. In fact, it looks like the mighty oak tree would walk away with the largest haul of medals; it supports the most species (over 400 species of invertebrates) it’s the thirstiest (drinks 50 gallons of water per day), the longest living (can live for over 400 years) and a good contender for the slowest as well!
Andy Crory is Nature Reserves Manager with the Ulster Wildlife Trust, Northern Ireland’s leading local nature conservation charity. To find out more about the charity’s work, including details of events and activities for all the family to get closer to nature, visit www.ulsterwildlifetrust.org
Images: Gannet, Green Tiger Beetle, Peregrine Falcon, Irish Hare, Goat Moth, Himalayan Balsam.