Animal Olympians: Nature's track and field stars

Usain Bolt and a cheetah Usain Bolt, the 100m world record holder, and a cheetah, the world's fastest land animal

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Like Olympic athletes, wildlife must demonstrate astounding athletic abilities every day. Their prize? Survival.

The world's finest athletes compete in the Olympics to be the best in their chosen sport. Their prize? A gold medal and perhaps a world record.

But how would nature's record-breakers compare if they could compete against human athletes?

We look at some animal athlete stars to see who really can run faster, throw further and jump longer and higher in the pursuit of Olympic track and field gold.

Speed freaks

The 100m sprint is arguably the most coveted event in athletics.

The accolade of being the fastest man on Earth is currently held by the aptly named Usain Bolt, who set the current world record in a lightning fast 9.58s.

Stars of track and field

Patas monkey the fastest primate on Earth
  • Top sprinter: Patas monkeys are three seconds quicker than a human athlete over 100m
  • Speed sensation: See what it takes to become the fastest animal on land
  • High jumper: Watch a jumping spider using hydraulic power to perform spectacular leaps
  • Little leapers: Marvel at the jumping prowess of the tiny springtail
  • Zone of repugnance: Watch a 5cm fungus shoot spores over 2m

Watch some of nature's most spectacular record-breakers in action

If Usain were to be shown a clean pair of heels by a cheetah, the world's fastest land animal, would that surprise you? Probably not.

However, did you know that the timid brown hare is no slouch either and capable of going for gold in just five seconds - essential to avoid the many predators trying to eat it.

Perhaps a fairer comparison would be with one of our closer relatives but even here Usain could only hope for silver, as a patas monkey would beat his best time by three seconds.

Where humans stand a better potential chance of gold is across longer distances.

Our upright posture and ability to shed heat make us remarkably good at long distance running at a good cruising speed, with marathons being completed in a little over two hours.

North America's pronghorn are capable of cruising at speeds of 65km/h for several kilometres to evade predators. If maintained, a marathon could be completed in well under an hour.

With their speed and endurance, they seem like the long distance runners to beat. However, they may not be able to maintain this speed for a full marathon.

Perhaps humans could compete for Olympic gold over longer distances after all?

Although ostriches are unlikely-looking front runners, they do have a 4m stride and springy tendons that store twice as much "elastic energy" per step than we do.

High flyers

With kangaroos, frogs and grasshoppers having evolved long legs with large muscles for maximum hopping power, the animal kingdom appears to be one step, bound or leap ahead in the jumping disciplines.

However, Olympic athletes can clear over 2.5m in the high jump and lengths of 9m in the long jump with a single leap.

To stay one jump ahead, leaping bush babies' legs convert the energy of impact back into propulsion, essentially acting like springs.

This miraculous feat enables them to reach 2.25m in height, which may not sound that impressive but is the equivalent of Andrey Silnov clearing two stacked double-decker buses.

Time-slice footage reveals how a bush baby's legs act like springs

The aptly named jumping spiders use hydraulic pressure to make their legs work like pistons, propelling them to heights of more than 30 times their own body length to land on unsuspecting prey.

Smaller can definitely be an advantage in the animal kingdom.

At less than half a millimetre long and the size of a full stop, a springtail can flick its body 15cm into the air, the equivalent to an athlete jumping over the Eiffel Tower.

Surely that would secure a gold medal?

Fleas, however, could still be in the running for a podium finish, catapulting themselves over 200 times their body length up to 33cm. Their secret is using their hind legs as multi-jointed levers.

Long shot

This summer, javelins, discus and shots will be thrown as far as humanly possible in the pursuit of glory - can our animal athletes possibly compete?

During the Beijing Games, Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway threw a javelin over 90m setting a new Olympic record.

Chimpanzees do not throw javelins yet, but they have been observed in Senegal making and using wooden spears.

It does not seem possible to compare a human hammer thrower with an arachnid but the bolas spider's athletic abilities come very close as they swing a sticky blob of silk to catch a moth.

See the moment a bolas spider uses its sticky trick to catch moths

Sadly, the spider would foul for failing to let go.

However, the natural world's favourite for gold in all throwing events is the hat thrower fungus.

Olympics coverage online

Olympics images

At barely 5cm in height it can propel a spore capsule a mighty 2m away in an effort to clear the zone of repugnance.

Luckily modern Olympic athletes do not have to compete with nature's greatest as they would be outsprinted by a monkey, outjumped by a springtail and outthrown by a tiny fungus.

There are several more animal record-breakers out there, using their athletic abilities to try and survive in the natural world.

The opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic Games is on Friday July 27 at 21:00.

It is then followed by three weeks of sporting excellence, as thousands of participants from hundreds of nations compete to be 'Faster, Higher, Stronger' in their own pursuit of gold.

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