The Common Swift Is No Longer the Fastest-Flying Animal

And here's a surprise: It wasn't even dethroned by another bird.

The Common Swift has officially lost its crown as the fastest-flying animal in the sky. So who took the title? The Peregrine Falcon? A frigatebird? Perhaps the Grey-headed Albatross? None of the above. The answer might surprise you, because according to the latest research, the fastest flier in the animal kingdom isn't a bird at all. It's a bat. 

But first, some background: The Peregrine Falcon is indisputably the fastest animal in the sky. It has been measured at speeds above 83.3 m/s (186 mph), but only when stooping, or diving. So for many years, it was commonly held by scientists that the fastest-flying bird in level flight was the White-throated Needletail (formerly known as the Spine-tailed Swift), which could supposedly reach speeds of up to 47m/s (105 mph). That number, however, had never been scientifically proven. 

It turns out that measuring the speed of animals in flight is actually fairly difficult, and it wasn’t until 2009 that a research team from Lund University in Sweden used high-speed cameras to scientifically measure what they believed to be the fastest flier on the planet, the Common Swift. At a scientifically verifiable 31m/s (69 mph), achieved during mating flights (also known as “screaming parties”), the swift was named the fastest pair of wings in the world. It held that title for seven years, but earlier this month scientists published a paper crowning a new fastest flier: the Brazilian free-tailed bat.

The accepted knowledge about bats in flight is that because of a lower mass-to-wing-area ratio and a less aerodynamic body shape, they are slower but more maneuverable fliers than birds. Like the speed of the White-throated Needletail, this was one of those “facts” that had never actually been verified. By using a small airplane, tricky piloting, and some clever triangulation to follow bats tagged with radio transmitters, a research team was able to measure female bats flying at almost 45 m/s (99.5 mph), which is almost 50 percent faster than the Common Swift’s record. This was a surprising result for everyone, including the scientists performing the study, and we can likely expect to hear about a lot more research into bat flight characteristics in the near future.

Swift fans (not this kind) disappointed at the dethroning of their champion can take solace in the fact that the Common Swift still holds the record for longest continuous flight. There is no indication that bats are anywhere close to taking that record from them anytime soon.