Awesome animals that turn laws of science upside down
by the miraculous standards of the natural world, its a feat almost beyond imagining.
Scientists in California have shown that a small bird known as Annas hummingbird, when attempting to impress a mate, can dive through the air at speeds of around 50 miles per hour.
So far, so what? After all, even a humble Ford Fiesta can go at least twice as fast. Ah, but an Annas hummingbird is only five inches long.
A scientific study, published this week, has shown that if you scaled it up to the size of a Ford Fiesta (13ft) it would be going at 1,300 miles per hour - almost twice the speed of sound.
Indeed, if you calculate speed using body lengths per second (the number of times an object can travel its own length in one second), the figures are even more astonishing.
A fighter jet can travel at 150bl/sec; the Space Shuttle at its fastest reaches 207bl/sec; but when its diving, the Annas hummingbird tops the lot at 383bl/sec. Awesome indeed. Especially when you consider how the little creature does it.
To perform its astonishing dive, the hummingbird must whirl its wings at more than 1,000 beats a minute and burn body fuel - derived mainly from nectar - about 400 times faster than a human. If we metabolised as quickly as they do, we would create such extreme body heat that wed roast ourselves alive.
Furthermore, Annas hummingbirds can do another incredible aerial stunt - it sticks out its wings when its about to hit the ground and zooms upwards again.
The resulting G-force (its acceleration relative to freefall) is about nine times the force of gravity - enough to cause any normal creature, even a trained fighter pilot, to blackout.
All in all, youd be forgiven for thinking that this little fellow must rank as one of the most incredible creatures on the planet.
But, in fact, there are many, many members of the animal kingdom whose physical capabilities simply beggar belief - indeed, they seem to defy the laws of physics, and thus of nature itself.
Such miracles can be seen in even the simplest creatures.
When I was at school, we were solemnly taught that no living organism could survive at temperatures much about 40C. (Birds commonly do operate at about 40C, but humans prefer a more modest 37C and are feverish at 40C.)
Then scientists in Yosemite National Park in California began looking for bacteria in the hot springs, where the water wells up under pressure at more than 100C - hotter than boiling water at normal atmospheric pressure.
It seemed a ridiculous place to look for living creatures, but sure enough, the scientists found microbes in huge variety. Later, more such thermophiles - heat lovers - turned up in the volcanic hot springs that well up from the beds of the worlds deepest oceans. Scientists thought they were very odd - the worlds most extreme heat specialists.
Now, it seems likely that the very earliest of all earthly creatures were thermophiles. In other words, its not the hot-spring creatures who are odd.
We are the strange ones: the creatures who have learned to be much cooler than what was once the norm, many millions of years ago.
So, how do the thermpophiles do it? After all, all living creatures are made largely of protein - and protein cooks at not much above 40C. (Hence why, in some extreme cases, marathon runners start damaging their own kidneys as their body overheats.)
The answer is: no one really knows. Its an unfathomable mystery that even the finest scientific minds cannot (yet) explain. Nor is this natures only trick. Pressures in the deep oceans exceed imagining.
At 700m - fairly modest depths by ocean standards -the pressure is up to 20 times normal atmospheric conditions. In the very deepest oceans, its more than 1,000 atmospheres - enough to crush every bone and organ in our bodies.
Yet still some species of deep sea fish can survive here. They do so by having no internal body cavities - not even swim bladders, which many fish use to keep them stable underwater - so there is nothing to collapse. Daily Mail
But get this: the sperm whale can dive to depths of nearly three kilometres (nearly two miles) where the pressure reaches hundreds of atmospheres - and yet its an airbreather, and so it has lungs. Why isnt it crushed?
The answer is that the sperm whaless ribs are highly flexible - and when the lungs collapse as they must, the ribs simply flatten with them. The oxygen, meantime, is stored in the blood - and the sperm whale can dive for up to 90minutes at a time without needing to surface for breath.
But there is one more problem. If human divers rise too fast from depths far more modest than this, they get the bends.
This happens when nitrogen gas dissolved in their blood comes out of solution as the pressure is reduced and so forms bubbles in the bloodstream, which can be fatal. This ought to happen to whales, too. But it doesnt. Again, naturalists are not clear why.
At the other end of the pressure scale, high above the Himalayan mountains, you may encounter skeins of migrating bar-headed geese, happily flying at almost the same height as jumbo jets.
The air is thin - thats why human mountaineers at comparable heights need oxygen - and the temperature is colder than Siberian winter.
But the geese revel in it. The thin air offers less resistance - just as it does to a jumbo jet - and the extreme cold prevents over-heating.
More stoically but equally impressively, male Emperor penguins tough out the Antarctic winter, where temperatures regularly plunge below minus 50C, by standing for weeks in a huddle, the outermost ones forever shuffling to the inside so that everyone takes their share of the furious, cutting winds.
It is a masterclass in tribal cooperation.
Polar fish, meanwhile, produce their own natural anti-freeze - chemical compounds that stop them being frozen stiff in the icy depths.
But often its the behaviour of animals that is even more astounding than their physical characteristics.
You might, for example, think it would be utterly impossible for any creature to catch moths on the wing at night in the pitch dark - but bats do it by echo-location, using highpitched squeaks which bounce off their surroundings to create a 'mental picture so detailed that they can even pick out a tiny flying insect.
For good measure, new research shows that the echo-locating bats even listen out for other bats as well, so they dont get in each others way.
Spiderman has nothing on bats.
It is equally impossible, you might think, for a baby bird that has done nothing in its brief life but sit in a nest and eat caterpillars to take off - after its parents have quit the scene - and fly from, say, Sussex to southern Africa: over the Channel and the Strait of Gibraltar; over the Sahara.
But that is what every new generation of swallows does - and then they repeat the feat, both ways, every year, for as long as they live, which could be a decade. Daily Mail