A little-studied mite native to California, the Paratarsotomus macropalpis, has the "fastest relative speed" of any animal on the planet.

"The mite runs at a relative speed of … nearly 200 body lengths a second," Dr. Jonathan Wright, a biologist from Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., told CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks.

Proportionate to its size, that's about equivalent to a human running at Mach 1.6, he said.

The mite, which averages about one millimetre long, can go even faster, travelling at speeds of up to 300 body lengths per second. 

Wright and his students used high-speed video to study the mite's speed, and found that to accomplish the impressive speeds, the mite can take a full stride more than 100 times a second.

"They're quite easy to find — they're not so easy to follow by eye, because they move so quickly and erratically that you could easily miss them as blowing dust or lose track of them," Wright told Bob McDonald.

Wright and his team published their findings in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

That's not the only thing that makes these tiny mites notable.

"In addition to having the fastest relative speed that we know for any animal, it also has the highest thermal tolerance we know for any animal," he said.

Can withstand temperatures up to 60 C

According to Wright, the mites can handle temperatures up to 60 C — useful in the California heat.

The mites move so quickly that in order to turn, the mites use their third legs as a sort of hook, lodging them into the ground and pivoting mid-movement to change their direction.

Wright says his team has observed the mites doing this to turn a full 180 degrees and move in the opposite direction, all in about a tenth of a second.

"If you watch them do that, it's so quick that it looks as though the mite loses control and just does a rapid pirouette on the spot. But when you watch them slowed down, it's actually a very, very controlled movement," Wright told McDonald.

The California researcher said it's not clear why the mites need to move so fast, and also noted that he wouldn't be surprised if the mite was eventually dethroned by another tiny creature.

"These are clearly fast runners, but there are many other very tiny fast-running animals." 

You can listen to the full interview from Quirks & Quarks by clicking or tapping on the audio link on this page.