Never mind London 2012, Olympic athletes are all around us says Kevin O’Hara, Conservation Officer with Northumberland Wildlife Trust.
He says: “Head off to any number of the wildlife charity’s 60 nature reserves and see wildlife which can jump higher, swim further and run faster than the Stella McCartney clad athletes competing for a medal.”
Head to Prestwick Carr on the outskirts of Newcastle and any of the Trust’s five reserves along Druridge Bay and see brown hares which can sprint faster than 100m sprint star Usain Bolt; Bolt manages a top speed of 44kph, compared with the hare’s 77kph – the secret of its speed lies in a flexible backbone that acts as a spring, plus powerful hind legs.
The Olympic Pool may have hosted some wonderful diving displays but millions of years of evolution have equipped gannets with attributes and prowess that would leave the UK’s leading high divers such as Tom Daley green with envy.
Gannets are mouth-breathers, with nostrils inside their bills so there’s no danger of water being forced into their lungs when they hit the sea; they have built-in inflatable sacs under the skin of their face and chest that cushion the impact and they are slightly cross-eyed which stare forwards along the bill – such binocular vision allows them to judge their proximity to the water surface with extraordinary accuracy. To see gannets in all their diving glory, head to Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s Hauxley and Cresswell Foreshore reserves which are host to thousands of wonderful sea birds each year.
The European teal duck, a regular visitor to the Trust’s Holywell Pond, Hauxley and Big Waters reserves are fantastic high jumpers. Whilst froghoppers and fleas leap higher in proportion to their body size, the diminutive European teal ducks jump with style – employing an almost vertical take-off, powered by rapid wing beats. Human high jumpers rely on their leg muscles to build up speed along the runway before a final leap to convert as much as that momentum as possible into vertical travel, but teals have powerful pectoral muscles which connect their wings to the knee bone in their sternum.
Zoe Smith, Team GB’s teenage weightlifting sensation, may have wowed the home crowd with her strength, but how would she rate against the red wood ant? Why not head to Holystone Valley and watch worker ants carrying huge objects back to their nests? You may see them lugging dead insects and pieces of wood much heavier than themselves. Depending upon the species, ants routinely carry objects 10 – 50 times their own body mass.
To compete with an ant, a top human weightlifter would need to lift around four tonnes; ants’ lifting abilities are testament to the benefit of having external exoskeletons, instead of suspending internal organs on a bony framework and enclosing them in skin.
When it comes to long jumping nobody can beat the red squirrel; willowy and acrobatic, this handsome creature is a stylish treetop athlete and would far out-jump any human. Master of this discipline, treetop jumping requires an acute ability to judge distance, strong leg muscles, a refined sense of balance and sharp claws that grip on the landing.
The other essential attribute for a champion squirrel long jumper is its bushy, 14-20cm tail, which helps it steer in flight and improves its touchdowns. Why not take a trip to Kielder Forest during the school holidays and catch a glimpse of the red squirrels in all their resplendent Olympic glory.
Lycra clad Kevin concludes: “If you are tiring of Claire Balding and Gary Lineker and their Olympic coverage every evening, why not take a trip around Northumberland and watch nature’s very own Olympic Games?
“Entry to these games is free, there is no risk of traffic congestion and the wonderful wildlife athletes will be there, long after the closing ceremony on Sunday 12 August, and, as a life long lover of otters – both above and below the waves, they would leave Michael Phelps doing the doggie paddle.”