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Large animals travel slowly because they get too hot

Understanding the factors that limit an animal’s traveling speed is essential to comprehend their movement patterns, survival strategies, and adaptability in the face of climate change. 

Researchers at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and the Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany, have discovered a key relationship between animal size and traveling speed, as well as the role of heat dissipation. The study, led by Alexander Dyer, was published on April 18th in the open-access journal PLOS Biology.

The capacity of an animal to travel is critical for its survival, as it determines its ability to migrate, find food and mates, and expand into new territories. In an increasingly human-dominated world, the challenges of fragmented habitats, limited food and water resources, and a changing climate make understanding these factors even more pressing.

How the study was done

To examine the relationship between animal size and traveling speed, Dyer and his colleagues developed a model using data from 532 species. Although it might be assumed that larger animals, with longer wings, legs, or tails, would be able to travel faster, the research team discovered that medium-sized animals typically demonstrate the fastest sustained speeds.

The researchers believe that this is because larger animals require more time to dissipate the heat generated by their muscles while moving. Consequently, these animals must travel more slowly to avoid overheating. The team concludes that an animal’s traveling speed can be explained by jointly considering how efficiently it utilizes energy and sheds heat.

What the researchers learned

“The new study provides a way to understand animal movement capacities across species and can be used to estimate any animal’s traveling speed based on its size. For example, this approach can be applied to predict whether an animal might be able to move between habitats fragmented by human development, even when the details of its biology are unknown,” said Dyer.

The researchers anticipate that larger animals may be more vulnerable to the effects of habitat fragmentation in a warming climate than previously thought, making them more prone to extinction. Dr. Myriam Hirt, the study’s last author from iDiv and the University of Jena, acknowledges that further investigation is necessary to confirm these suspicions. 

This research could provide crucial insights into the conservation efforts needed to protect species affected by habitat fragmentation and climate change.

More about animals and traveling speed

While the aforementioned study provides valuable insights into the relationship between animal size and traveling speed, there are other factors and aspects worth considering. 

Large animals have certain advantages and disadvantages when it comes to their traveling speed, which are influenced by various biological, physiological, and ecological factors.

Body structure

The biomechanics of large animals, including their muscle strength, leg length, and overall body design, can influence their traveling speed. For instance, long-legged animals like giraffes or elephants can cover greater distances with each stride. However, their size and mass can also limit their acceleration, making them slower to reach their top speed compared to smaller animals.

Metabolic rate

Large animals typically have lower metabolic rates compared to smaller ones. As a result, they may not need to travel as fast to obtain the necessary energy and resources for survival. This could partly explain why larger animals don’t travel as fast as might be expected based on their size alone.

Energy conservation

Large animals may opt for slower traveling speeds to conserve energy. Traveling at high speeds can be energetically costly, so maintaining a slower pace can help them preserve energy for essential activities like foraging, mating, and escaping predators.


The type of terrain that large animals inhabit can affect their traveling speed. For example, large animals living in dense forests may have difficulty navigating through tight spaces and obstacles, while those living in open grasslands or savannahs may be able to move more freely and rapidly.

Predation and escape strategies

Large animals often have fewer natural predators, which could reduce the need for high-speed escapes. Instead, they may rely on their strength, size, or social behavior to deter predators.

Locomotion type

The mode of locomotion used by large animals can also impact their traveling speed. For example, large aquatic animals, like whales, can achieve considerable speeds in water due to their streamlined bodies and powerful tails. However, large terrestrial animals like elephants may not be as efficient in terms of their speed.

Understanding the factors that govern the traveling speed of large animals is essential for ecological studies, wildlife conservation, and predicting how these species will respond to environmental changes. Further research in this area could help refine our understanding of the relationship between animal size and traveling speed, as well as the consequences for species conservation and management.


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