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Big mammals slow down to let their nerves catch up

Whether it’s avoiding the slap of a flyswatter or shooting a tongue out at just the right moment to capture prey, fast reflexes can mean the difference between life and death in the animal kingdom. But a new study finds that not all reflexes are created equal: Larger animals are slower on the draw than smaller ones and because of that, they can’t move nearly as fast as they should be able to.

When it comes to reflexes, there’s no doubt that bigger animals are a little slower. Big animals have longer neurons, and that means more time for a signal to travel from the spine to a leg muscle, for example. But nerve speed isn’t the only thing that slows down reflexes.

So in the new study, researchers decided to look at myriad factors, like how fast muscles can generate force. They combed through data from other studies on electrically stimulated nerves and muscles in animals as small as shrews to as large as elephants. They also looked at the gaits of these mammals to calculate how long their stride and foot-down positions were in relation to their body size, which allowed researchers to look at how relatively quick their reflexes are.

As size scales up, so does the total time it takes for muscles to respond, the team reported yesterday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Large mammals experience a delay between nerve firing and muscle movement that is more than 15 times longer than small mammals. But, relative to the speed of their body movements, that delay is only twice as long—which means to compensate for slow signals, they’re moving more slowly. If this didn’t happen, a running 250-kilogram elk would be a cartoonish blur of legs, taking steps far faster than its reflexes could ever respond to. Call it a biological speed limit.