7 Superlative Flying Animals

falcon in flight
The animal world is filled with some spectacular fliers.

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Ah, flying. The ability many humans would love to have, but we have to settle for cramped seats in airplanes.

These animals, however, are natural fliers (or gliders in a few cases) and they're all special at it in their own ways. So from the high flying to the slow flying, here are some superior soaring animals.

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Heaviest Flier: Great Bustard

The great bustard in a green field

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Bustards are birds that come in a range of species, but the great bustard stands out among them because they're the heaviest of birds that can take flight. The great bustard, along with the kori bustard, can reach up to 40 pounds (18 kilograms) and still fly. Some birds, like the Andean condor, can get close to that weight, but not many do. Bustards are compact birds, too. Males only reach about 3.5 feet (1 meter) in height.

The great bustard, predominately found in Europe and Asia, is considered vulnerable as a species due to habitat loss. Conservation actions are proposed and underway to protect and re-establish this great bird.

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Fastest While Diving: Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine falcon in flight

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Ask people what the fastest animal in the world is, and many will guess the cheetah. Cheetahs can reach 75 miles per hour, and that earns them the title of fastest animal on land. When it comes to the whole planet, however, the peregrine falcon has those big cats beat. In its hunting dive, the peregrine falcon is traveling at 240 miles per hour.

So how do peregrine falcons reach such amazing speeds? Peregrines have exceptionally powerful flight muscles and pointed feathers that give them a streamlined, slick look. This makes them more aerodynamic, which means they can dive faster. Peregrine falcons also have large hearts and efficient lungs — most birds wouldn't be able to breathe at these speeds.

All of that combines to make a these dive-bombers so fast that if you blink, you might miss 'em.

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Fastest Flapping: Mexican Free-tailed Bat

A flock of Mexican free-tailed bats

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Mexican free-tailed bats, also known as the Brazilian free-tailed bat, weigh 11 to 14 grams — about the weight of an AAA battery — and have a wingspan between 12 to 14 inches (30 to 35 centimeters). These bats have been clocked flapping at speeds from 60 to 100 miles per hour, which means they're faster than cheetahs, too.

They're among the most abundant mammals in North America, but habitat destruction may make it hard on them in the future. They roost only in a limited number of locations, albeit in large numbers.

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Slowest Fliers: American Woodcock

American woodcock

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Let's slow down the superlatives here for a moment, because here's the American woodcock. These small birds — they're 10 to 12 inches long and weigh 140 to 230 grams — fly in loose groups or by themselves. Flying together probably feels more sociable since they're such slow fliers. Their normal migration speed is around 16-28 miles per hour, but they will also fly at a very leisurely 5 miles per hour. Humans can run faster than the woodcock's top speed, let alone that slow-moving 5 miles per hour.

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Highest Fliers: Bar-headed Geese in Migration

Bar-headed geese flying over the Himalayas

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While a 1974 report of a Rüppell's griffon vulture colliding with an airplane at 37,000 feet (11,278 meters) makes this vulture the highest of fliers, this sort of cruising height doesn't seem to occur often. More routinely, however, two birds make extreme height migrations: the bar-headed goose (Anser indicus) and the common crane (Grus grus).

The bar-headed goose is notable for its flying technique. Members of the species can reach up to 23,000 feet as they fly over the Himalayas. To reach these heights, the geese engage in a sort of roller-coaster approach to the flight, diving and rising to conserve energy. While this may seem counterintuitive, staying at extreme heights causes the birds' heart rates to spike, and that uses more energy than hugging the ground and then climbing back up. Also, the geese never stop flapping, which adds to the energy they expend.

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Flying fish over the ocean

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Not all superlative fliers are of the avian persuasion: enter the flying fish. These ray-finned fish don't actually fly. They can't propel themselves with their wings by flapping. Instead, they're able to leap out of the water and glide on their fins, often for long distances. The National Wildlife Federation says the flying fish's maximum distance is 650 feet. They do this to escape predators, but once they're in the air, they're easy pickings for birds, too. Win some, lose some.

Flying fish encompass over 60 different species, which means there could be a lot of fish jumping out of the ocean and soaring over the open seas.

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Most Surprising Fliers: Snakes

Flying snake

Len Worthington / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Flying snakes are members of the genus Chrysopelea. This slithery reptile will move vertically up a tree until it reaches an end of a branch. Then it propels itself off the tree and into the air, slithering all the while.

These snakes soar by sucking in their abdomens and expanding their rib cages, and this combination creates a "pseudo concave wing" that allows them to soar, in some cases better than flying squirrels. The Department of Defense reportedly once looked into how these snakes operate to see what it could learn from the snake's dynamics.