Sorry Birds, Scientists Say This Bat Is Now the Fastest Horizontal Flier on Earth

The Brazilian free-tailed bat, fastest winged creature on Earth. Photo: Joel Sartore/Getty Images/National Geographic

Move over birds, it’s now the time of the bat — at least when it comes to flight-speed supremacy. The Brazilian free-tailed bat is officially the fastest horizontal flier in the world, according to researchers who recorded the little winged rats flying at speeds of up to 100 mph. That’s more than 30 mph swifter than the common swift, the bird previously thought to hold the horizontal-speed record.

“We didn’t expect these results, even though the Brazilian free-tailed bats are known for their exceptional fast flight,” says Gary McCracken of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, one of the authors of the study recently published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

What McCracken and his team did expect to prove was that the tiny Brazilian is a lot faster than people generally thought. That’s why they went to all the effort of gluing sensors to seven different bats and following them in an airplane to determine their flight speed.

The researcher’s work took place in southwest Texas, where they waited outside a cave for the nightly emergence of their subjects. Each night for a week, they would catch a bat with a net, glue a transmitter to its back, and follow it in the air for hours in a Cessna 172. The results were stunning. Not only did the Brazilian free-tailed bat maintain consistent speeds of 62 mph, but it could apparently accelerate all the way up to triple digits.

“Most of the time, these animals are moving at moderate speeds, but what we see here is that they exceed these expectations and quite dramatically for brief periods of time,” McCracken says.

The results are surprising because bats simply aren’t built to fly faster than birds. Their bodies are not as aerodynamic, they have big ears and stubby noses, and their wings, made from skin, are not nearly as efficient as those covered in feathers.

Still, even with this victory for the Brazilian free-tailed bat at horizontal flight, the mammal will never reach the top speeds of the fastest animal known to man. The mighty peregrine falcon can reach speeds exceeding 200 mph when it dives down from great heights. The Brazilian free-tailed bat might be faster at flying straight lines the hard way, but tell that to a hungry descending falcon.

This Bat Is Now the Fastest Horizontal Flier on Earth