Hummingbirds are the fastest animals on Earth, relative to their body size. They can cover more body lengths per second than any other vertebrate and for their size can even outpace fighter jets and the space shuttle – while withstanding g-forces that would make a fighter pilot black out.
Christopher James Clark, a zoologist at the University of California, Berkeley, took high-speed pictures of male Anna's hummingbirds performing dives as part of their courtship ritual. He measured them moving at up to 385 body lengths per second (blps), which is around 27.3 metres per second.
This is the highest speed ever recorded for a vertebrate, relative to its size. The only animals that can move faster relative to their body size are insects such as fleas.
"During the dive, the hummingbirds experienced an acceleration force nearly nine times that of gravity, the highest recorded for any vertebrate undergoing a voluntary aerial manoeuvre, with the exception of jet fighter pilots. At 7g, most pilots experience blackouts.
Aerial dives are part of the courtship behaviour of many birds, including nighthawks, snipes and other hummingbirds. Falcons, kingfishers and many seabirds use dives to attack prey. By diving, birds can achieve extremely high speeds.
Clark wrote that maximising speed is an important component of the courtship display of Anna's hummingbirds, because of the loud sound generated as they dive. In previous research, Clark showed that male Anna's hummingbirds spread their outer tail feathers during dives and these vibrate like the reed in a clarinet. The dive produces a loud, brief chirping sound.
Its maximum dive speed of 385blps is faster than peregrine falcons (200blps) and swallows (350blps) diving in pursuit of prey.
"Incidentally," wrote Clark, "it is also greater than the top speed of a fighter jet with its afterburners on, 150blps (885 metres per second), or the space shuttle during atmospheric re-entry, 207blps (7,700metres per second)."
Isn't nature wonderful....