Old news that made me go hmmm last week

I am not a very up-to-date kind of guy. Sometimes I stumble across some very old facts that I did not know about before (and that have nothing to do with investing).

Like this one:

The condor uses the least energy to move a kilometer of all species.most efficient species

So far so good. That sounds reasonable. The source being a study published by Scientific American in March 1973 (= good excuse for not having known about that fact as it was way before I started schooling).

So, where on that list of various species does the crown of creation rank in terms of efficiency of locomotion?

The human can be found at a rather unimpressive third of the way down the list.

But then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a human on a bicycle blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts.


Could the use of a rather simple contraption make us that much more efficient?

S.S. Wilson the author of that original article explained further:

“When one compares the energy consumed in moving a certain distance as a function of body weight for a variety of animals and machines, one finds that an unaided walking man does fairly well (consuming about .75 calorie per gram per kilometer), but he is not as efficient as a horse, a salmon or a jet transport. With the aid of a bicycle, however, the man’s energy consumption for a given distance is reduced to about a fifth (roughly .15 calorie per gram per kilometer). The cyclist improves his efficiency rating to No. 1 among moving creatures and machines.”


I did a bit more digging around in the world wide web and found two animals that could be much more efficient than a cyclist.

  1. Monarch Butterfly: more efficient than human on bicyleOn 140 milligrams of fat a monarch butterfly has enough energy to continuously flap its wing flying for 44 hours and to soar or glide for 1040 hours!  So the
    butterfly is using at most 3 milligrams per hour. For a 50 kg human (not my weight!) cycling 25 to 30 km per hour 599 dietary calories (kilocalories) are used per hour. This corresponds to 67 grams (67,000 milligrams) fat per hour. Humans use more than 1000 times as much energy per kilometer as monarch butterflies, even considering the record distance on a bicycle for a day is 521 miles, about twice the butterfly’s record. Ok, but then this sample human moves 50.0 kg from A to B whereas the butterfly moves only 0.000560 kg.
  2. Jellyfish: most efficient speciesThey swim using a dual-propulsion system that involves two vortices. As the first vortex (the “starting vortex”) pinches off, a second vortex forms, spinning in the opposite direction (the “stopping vortex”). When the animal relaxes its muscles and opens its bell, the stopping vortex moves up underneath the jellyfish, giving it a secondary push. Thanks to that method the moon jellyfish swims about 3.5 times more efficiently than salmon. Very efficient indeed.

Great. So what have I learnt from that?

  1. Human ingenuity comes in handy for inventing tools that make us more efficient.
  2. Being a rational optimist gives me hope that human ingenuity will continue to find tools and invent methods to address our current and future challenges.
  3. Before learning how to flap my wings or refining my dual-propulsion system involving those fancy vortices it might be more efficient for me to just continue with cycling.

Let me end with the philosopher Ivan Illich‘s words of wisdom:

“Bicycles let people move with greater speed without taking up significant amounts of scarce space, energy, or time. They can spend fewer hours on each mile and still travel more miles in a year. They can get the benefit of technological breakthroughs without putting undue claims on the schedules, energy, or space of others. They become masters of their own movements without blocking those of their fellows. Their new tool creates only those demands which it can also satisfy. Every increase in motorized speed creates new demands on space and time. The use of the bicycle is self-limiting. It allows people to create a new relationship between their life-space and their life-time, between their territory and the pulse of their being, without destroying their inherited balance. The advantages of modern self-powered traffic are obvious, and ignored.” (1978)




  1. Hi Andy,

    Good info. I like the verse that says “unaided walking man does fairly well..”

    Look at the creation of this world. Have we ever wondered how miraculous it is. Each having its own purpose. The amazing human minds and the extraordinary movements of different creatures, our cells in the body and how it reacts and heals or even become stricken. All these are not aided.

    If we goes back to the beginning, sometimes we really wondered if all the technology or even the extravagant manipulation of the human life is necessary?

    Maybe if everyone has a piece of land and the natural forest, and animals for farming and seeds/plants for sowing/reaping, we should be lacking nothing in life. And life will not need to be so busy chasing things that will eventually dies off.

    • Hi Rolf,

      Yes, I do wonder everyday about the magic of nature.
      What you describe is very idealistic. Only few people can resist modern life and go back to nature. Although it would have lots of benefits.
      “Align with nature … magic happens.”

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