A general scaling law reveals why the largest animals are not the fastest

  • Nature Ecology & Evolution 111161122 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0241-4
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Speed is the fundamental constraint on animal movement, yet there is no general consensus on the determinants of maximum speed itself. Here, we provide a general scaling model of maximum speed with body mass, which holds across locomotion modes, ecosystem types and taxonomic groups. In contrast to traditional power-law scaling, we predict a hump-shaped relationship resulting from a finite acceleration time for animals, which explains why the largest animals are not the fastest. This model is strongly supported by extensive empirical data (474 species, with body masses ranging from 30 μg to 100 tonnes) from terrestrial as well as aquatic ecosystems. Our approach unravels a fundamental constraint on the upper limit of animal movement, thus enabling a better understanding of realized movement patterns in nature and their multifold ecological consequences.

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M.R.H., W.J., B.C.R. and U.B. acknowledge the support of the German Centre for integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig funded by the German Research Foundation (FZT 118).

Author information


  1. EcoNetLab, German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig, Leipzig, 04103, Germany

    • Myriam R. Hirt
    • , Walter Jetz
    • , Björn C. Rall
    •  & Ulrich Brose
  2. EcoNetLab, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Dornburger Strasse 159, 07743, Jena, Germany

    • Myriam R. Hirt
    • , Björn C. Rall
    •  & Ulrich Brose
  3. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 06511, USA

    • Walter Jetz
  4. Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London, Silwood Park, Ascot, SL5 7QN, UK

    • Walter Jetz


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M.R.H. and U.B. developed the model. M.R.H. gathered the data. M.R.H. and B.C.R. carried out statistical analyses. W.J. was involved in study concept and data analyses. M.R.H. and U.B. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Myriam R. Hirt.

Supplementary information

  1. 1.

    Supplementary information

    Supplementary Tables 1–5; maximum speed database