North America's fastest land animal rivals the cheetah for speed

February 25, 2016, 8 a.m.

This beautiful animal is often called an antelope, though it bears no relation. The pronghorn is actually the only species left in its family, and it is more closely related to giraffes and okapi than it is to any antelopes. The species has a long history in North America, and its speed is a reminder of how very different the continent used to be.

Though the cheetah can reach speeds of 60 mph, the cats can only sustain the speed for about 700 yards. Pronghorn, on the other hand, can reach top speeds of around 55 mph for sprints and can run at a steady clip of 30 mph for over 20 miles! This means in a long distance race, the pronghorn has the upper hand - or hoof, as the case may be.

Why did the pronghorn evolve to run so fast if nothing on the North American continent can come anywhere close to it for speed? Well, North America used to have cheetahs, and several other species of very fast predators including short-faced bears and even hyenas.

John A. Byers, a scientist who has studied pronghorn for decades came up with this theory. He argues that the pronghorn perfected its running prowess well over 10,000 years ago when the continent still had predators that could give the pronghorn a run for their money. The species is still speedy despite the extinction of its challengers.

However, the theory is still simply a theory. Hard evidence in the fossil record that proves this evolutionary correlation has yet to be uncovered. So, at least for now, the speed of the pronghorn remains a unique marvel to simply appreciate for what it is.

Would you like your photo to be featured as Photo of the Day? Join our Flickr group and add your photos to the pool!

* * *

Jaymi Heimbuch is a writer and photographer at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.