Would an American Win the Land Mammal Belmont Stakes?

Pronghorn Running USDA
Photo: Mark Gocke, USDA
The Wall Street Journal asks a great question this morning: Who would win if any animal could compete in this weekend’s Belmont Stakes with no rider required? Journal writers Geoff Foster and Jim Chairusmi call it the Wild Kingdom Stakes, but without any birds included, from land-runners like ostrich to blazing-fast fliers like the golden eagle, we’ll call it the Land Mammal Stakes.

If you’re a fan of big cats like me, a cheetah was the first contestant to come to mind. But the sprinters are short on stamina and like all cats, long on laziness:

9. Cheetah

The morning-line favorite. Having a fancy title like “World’s Fastest Land Animal” is going to get you a lot of betting action. But this isn’t a sprint—and the cheetah has no chance. Dr. Lindstedt estimates it would blast out of the starting gate, and after 20 seconds, would open up a 950-foot lead on the fastest thoroughbred. After that? You may find him napping in the infield.

Instead, scientists say a track star of the American West would finish far ahead of the Belmont’s thoroughbred horses:

8. Pronghorn

The wiseguy pick. They may not be as sexy as some of the other competitors, but pronghorns have an ideal mix of speed and endurance. Dr. Lindstedt says for a 1 ½ mile distance, they could likely reach a blistering pace of 50 mph. Added bonus: They are local, hailing from Western states like Wyoming and Colorado. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

But it gets even more interesting, according to Bruce Stein, the National Wildlife Federation’s director of climate change adaptation.

The pronghorn’s blazing speed is apparently an evolutionary response to predation by the American cheetah, an animal that went extinct in the Pleistocene,” says Bruce. “So in some ways, it truly is a race between pronghorn and cheetah!”

While pronghorns evolved their speed and endurance for outrunning predators and long migrations, today their biggest threats are cars, fences, and habitat loss. In fact, two subspecies – Peninsular pronghorns and Sonoran pronghorns – are on the Endangered Species List. Learn more about how the National Wildlife Federation is working to protect pronghorns.

And the fastest fish in the world? The sailfish, clocked in short sprints at up to 68 miles per hour.

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Published: June 7, 2013