The greatest jumper on earth is probably not a flea

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Source: BBC

By Ella Davies

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Canada’s Derek Drouin took the gold in the high jump, with a leap of 2.38 m (7ft 10in). It was a stunning jump, but it fell 7cm short of the world record of 2.45m (8ft), set by Cuba’s Javier Sotomayor way back in 1993.

As ever with our athletic feats, there are plenty of wild animals that leap far higher, reaching dizzying heights in a single bound.

There are two ways you can measure the highest jumps. The first is the absolute height an animal reaches. However, that tends to favour the largest animals, so the second option is to consider how high an animal jumps relative to its own size.

Depending which you choose, the title of highest jumper could go to several different species.

A springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) (Credit: Lou Coetzer/naturepl.com)

A springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) (Credit: Lou Coetzer/naturepl.com)

Let’s start with the absolute highest jumps. Unsurprisingly, many of the bounciest species have the word “spring” in their names.

One such species is the springbok, a medium-sized antelope found in southern Africa. Hunted by big cats, eagles and wild dogs, these animals often leap for safety.

Hares jump further than rabbits, because they are bigger

They also engage in bouts of “pronking”. This involves a series of stiff-legged jumps that can reach 6.5ft (2m) in height. Scientists have suggested that this helps males display their strength and watch for predators.

The impala is arguably the highest jumper among antelope, out-leaping any human athlete. It can soar up to 9ft 10in (3m) over obstacles, including other impalas and savannah vegetation. This is a life-saving adaptation when you are on something else’s lunch menu.

Another antelope species named for its jumping ability is theklipspringer. It is a relatively dainty species found in mountainous areas of southern and eastern Africa. They have strong back legs to help them climb across rocks, and a distinctive habit of walking on tiptoes.

There is an oft-quoted statistic about klipspringers: that they can jump an extraordinary 25ft (7.6m). However, it is probably a tall tale.

According to Craig Roberts of the University of Stirling in the UK, who has studied the animals, klipspringers’ specialised hooves allow them to traverse near-vertical slopes. Thanks to a rotated digit, the hooves are effectively cylindrical, enhancing the antelope’s grip.

White-tailed jackrabbits (Lepus townsendii) (Credit: Tom Mangelsen/naturepl.com)

White-tailed jackrabbits (Lepus townsendii) (Credit: Tom Mangelsen/naturepl.com)

Sticking with mammals, there is another familiar group renowned for hopping and bounding: rabbits and hares. Hares jump further than rabbits, because they are bigger, says ecologist John Flux.

The red kangaroo is one of the biggest animals to leap

He points to data collected in the early 1900s by the epically-named naturalist Gerald Edwin Hamilton Barrett-Hamilton. He recordedbrown hares reaching heights of 15ft (4.5m), while white-tailed jackrabbits travelled an astonishing 21ft (6.4m)

Flux says hares are “finely adapted for long-distance running at high speed”. They have light skulls, large hearts and dark red flesh in their muscles to carry plenty of oxygen. “This makes hares very good athletes, and hence great jumpers.”

On top of their athletic ability, hares’ long hind legs have extended tendons. These store the elastic energy needed to power remarkable jumps.

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