The Creature that Runs So Fast it Goes Blind!

Beetles rule!

Battling Male Rhinoceros Beetles

At least, beetles rule when it comes to the number of species.  Species of beetles constitute about 25% of all known life-forms on Earth. In the insect realm, 40% of all insect species are beetles, numbering about 350,000.  Every year, dozens of new species are discovered, and some believe the number of unclassified beetle species could be into the millions.

Beetles are classified in the order, Coleoptera. This term, first coined by Aristotle, means “sheathed wing,” as this beautiful Maybug beetle illustrates:

Maybug Beetle - Melolontha melolontha

Beetles comes in a staggering variety of forms:

Weevils - Liparus vs. Pissodes

Neotropical harlequin beetle - Acrocinus longimanus

Goliath Beetle - Goliathus albosignatus - photo by Milan Ilnycky

Pseudonemophas versteegi

But of all the beetles, my favorite is the ferocious and well-named tiger beetle.

Meet the Amazing Tiger Beetle

The Fearsome Jaws of the Tiger Beetle - Igor Siwanowicz

The tiger beetles is just as ferocious as it looks, and got it’s name from how it hunts like a tiger.  It uses its huge eyes to locate and stalk its prey.  Once prey is spotted, the tiger beetle runs it down, pounces on it, and tears it to shreds with its huge sword-like mandibles.

Tiger beetles eat other beetles, flies, caterpillars, ants, grasshoppers, spiders and additional invertebrates.  And be warned: if you try to catch one with your hands, it will give you a very painful bite that draws blood!  (I speak from experience on this!)

As fearsome as they are, these miniature monsters are some of the most beautiful beetles in the world, and often come in brilliant colors:

Tiger Beetle - by Igor Siwanowicz

Tiger Beetle - Cicindela formosa

Six-spotted Green Tiger Beetle - by Janet Harper

Japanese Tiger Beetle - Cicindela japonica - by Richard Seaman

On Land, the Fastest Insect in the World

There are many bigger and stronger beetles than the tiger beetle.  What really sets the tiger beetle apart from other beetles is its speed. In the insect world, nothing runs faster on the ground. I can remember many a fruitless chase as a young boy in the Mojave Desert trying to catch one of these little speed demons. The only thing faster on the dunes was the Zerbra-tailed lizard, probably the fastest lizard in the world.

So, just how fast do these little monsters run? Cole Gilbert, a professor of entomology at Cornel, worked with some American tiger beetles that ran about 1.2 mph or .53 meters per second. That may not sound very fast, until you take into account the scale of the insect. Let’s compare the tiger beetle’s relative speed to that of the fastest human in the world.

The Fastest Human in the World

For our comparison, let’s use the fastest man in the word: Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. During the 100 meter dash, he has reached the astonishing top speed of 12.27 m/s or 44.17 km/hr (27.3 mph).

Usain Bolt - runs 6 body lengths per second at top speed

Since Bolt is 1.96 metres (6 ft 5 in) tall, at top speed he is covering over 6 times his body length every second! In other words, Bolt can run 6 bl/s. Pretty impressive! But now let’s compare Bolt’s relative speed to that of Dr. Gilbert’s tiger beetle.

The Tiger Beetle’s Astonishing Speed Relative to Its Size

The species of tiger beetle that Gilbert’s studied is 10 millimeters long, not quite half an inch. At top speed, the beetle is moving 1.2 mph or .53 meters a second. That means the little beetle is ripping along at 53 body lengths a second, almost 9 times as fast as Bolt in relative terms.

In other words, the relative speed of a human-sized tiger beetle running at 53 bl/s would over 240 mph!  Imagine a 200-pound tiger chasing you that could run faster than Dale Earnhardt’s race car!

Dale Earnhardt's Stock Car

But Dr. Gilbert’s tiger beetle is far from being the relative speed champ. That title belongs to Australian tiger beetle, Cicindela eburneola (subgenus Rivacindela). This amazing insect runs 1.86 m/s (4.16 mph) or an incredible 171 bl/s!

To convert this tiger beetle’s astonishing relative speed into human terms: a Usain Bolt-sized tiger beetle moving at 171 body lengths per second would be moving at about 1097 feet per second or approximately 748 mph! This speed would break sound barrier at sea level (732 mph)! And it would only be a little slower than the Thrust SSC (SuperSonic Car) which went 1,228 km/h (763 mph) breaking the sound barrier at a higher altitude.

Thrust SSC- top speed 763 mph

[Qualification – Yes, there is another Australian tiger beetle that’s even faster in terms of absolute speed. The species Cicindela hudsoni can reach a top speed of 2.5 m/s or 5.6 mph.  However, being a larger insect, C. hudsoni’s relative speed is “only” 120 bl/s, which translates to a relative speed of “only” 520 mph, merely the cruising speed of a passenger jet!]

Of course, the land animal holding the absolute speed record is the amazing cheetah. As I explained in a previous post, it’s can explode to 65 mph in just 3 seconds, faster than a 660 horsepower Ferrari!

See: Drag Race—Cheetah Takes on a Ferrari!

The Tiger Beetle—So Fast It Goes Blind!

Clearly, whether you consider absolute or relative speed, the tiger beetle is one fast insect. If you’re a small insect and the tiger beetle spots you, and you can’t fly away or hide, you are doomed. You aren’t going to outrun those ferocious jaws of death.

Tiger Beetle - Cicindela hybrida - by Richard Bartz

Unless….the tiger beetle is running so fast he doesn’t even see you, because it’s virtually blind!

Dr. Cole Gilbert - entomologist at Cornell University

As Dr. Gilbert explains, “If the tiger beetles move too quickly, they don’t gather enough photons (illumination into the beetle’s eyes) to form an image of their prey. Now, it doesn’t mean they are not receptive. It just means that at their speed during the chase, they’re not getting enough photons reflected from the prey to make an image and locate the prey. That is why they have to stop, look around and go. Although it is temporary, they go blind.”

Imagine being able to run so fast that things go dark at top speed , because your eyes aren’t getting enough light and the visual info is coming in faster than your brain can process! That, my friends, is fast! When you consider the relative speed of tiger beetles, it makes sense. If we could sprint to near the speed of sound in seconds, no doubt our eyes and brains would be unable to process what we saw too!

When I watched tiger beetles hunt on sand dunes in the Mojave desert, I was always amazed and puzzled by their stop and start behavior. In a blink of an eye, they’d take off, become a blur, stop in an instant, and then zoom off again. It wasn’t until decades later that I learned the science behind this interesting herky-jerky behavior.

The Summer, Look for Tiger Beetles!

Tigers beetles are found throughout the world, and there are more than a hundred species in the United States. They typically live along sea and lake shores, on sand dunes, around dried lakebeds, and on woodland paths. They are particularly fond of sandy surfaces.

Tiger beetle - Lophyra sp

This summer, keep an eye open for these amazing speed-demon predators. Tiger beetles aren’t huge, but there’s no mistaking their beautiful coloration, their bulging eyes, and those incredible jaws. No beetle or insect on the ground will be moving as fast.  And when you see them stop and start in bursts of speed, you’ll know why: these amazing beetles run so fast, they go blind and have to stop to see where they are!

If you’re an insect being chased by a tiger beetle, you’d better hope you can hide or fly away during that very brief blind period, because you’ll never outrun this speed king of insects!

Tiger Beetle - Cicindela hybrida - by Richard Bartz


11 Responses to “The Creature that Runs So Fast it Goes Blind!”
  1. Steve, It’s of little consequence, but I thought that you might be interested to know that I once danced so hard at a party that I temporarily went blind.

    • Hey Jan! That must have been one heck of a party and one heck of a dance! LOL!

      Thanks for stopping by.


      • Being now persona non grata on fb, I was unable to express my *liking* of the Iraq-Poem and accompanying audios. They express beautifully what I myself feel on the subject. ❤
        I have always held you in high esteem….Higher still, having just deeply enjoyed your TigerBeetle blog. A superb (IMnsHO) presentation and experience.

  2. I was wondering, while lying down in the chaise lounge, looking at the flagstone patio, just how fast, relative to their size, these little insects were running. They’re so small, that I wasn’t able to discern their body shape. They could sit atop the point of a safety pin. But they run around in sporadic circles, straight lines, curves, and they only stop about once every 2 or 3 estimated yards of running, in about 20 seconds; even though its “hunting ground” only consisted of an area of 12 inches in diameter. Where in the world does a speedy insect amass enough energy to burn like that?

  3. TERRY says:


  4. Ricko W says:

    The tiger beetles is just as ferocious as it looks, and got it’s name from how it hunts like a tiger. It uses its huge eyes to locate and stalk its prey. Once prey is spotted, the tiger beetle runs it down, pounces on it, and tears it to shreds with its huge sword-like mandibles.
    Tiger beetles eat other beetles, flies, caterpillars, ants, grasshoppers, spiders and additional invertebrates. And be warned: if you try to catch one with your hands, it will give you a very painful bite that draws blood! (I speak from experience on this!)

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] beetle, which can run up to 5.6 mph. Scaled up to the size of Usain Bolt that would be 520mph (ref). Surely more impressive than a CGI animation or Volkswagon Beetle, but maybe not the comical […]

  2. […] via Goodheart’s Extreme Science Tags: ant, bee, beetle, bugs, butterfly, insect, […]

  3. […] these silly little speed demons and for the sources for the above image and statistics, check out Goodheart’s Extreme Science Blog. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  4. […] The Creature that Runs So Fast it Goes Blind! ( 00    This entry was posted in Alberta, Canada, Cicindelidae, Coleoptera, macro, Spring and tagged Acorn, Alberta, beetle, cicindela, John Acorn, Lake Newell, Nikon, sandhills, Tamron, tiger, Tiger beetle. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. « A Tree of Buggy Blogs Speckled Rangeland Grasshopper » […]

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