Humans have huge variation in physical ability because of exercise differences. Olympic athletes are a number of times stronger than average people on the street. It seems that variation in animals is very small, but I am wondering if one could force an animal to follow a specific program and eat specific food to get a lot stronger, agile.. than average animal of the same species.

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When I visited the Cheetah Outreach Center in South Africa, the guides there told us that their captive cheetahs couldn't run nearly as fast as wild ones, and that wild ones were much more muscular than the ones in the center; their point being that actually having to run full-out or starve caused much more rigorous training than occasionally jogging after a fake rabbit on a string. That's supported by this article:

The cheetahs being studied didn’t come close to the speeds reported for wild cheetahs — the zoo animals reached 38 mph (61 kph), while the greyhounds topped out at 43 mph (68 kph).

The researchers said this was probably because the captive-born cheetahs have never really gotten the chance to let loose in the wild and run full throttle.

“They have lived in a zoo for several generations and have never had to run to catch food. They have probably never learned to run, particularly,” Wilson said.

--Cheetah Speed Attributed To Animal’s Ability To ‘Switch Gears’ While Running

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    In other words, animals in the wild are training like they are Olympic athletes, – Arcanist Lupus Aug 3 at 1:19
  • Very cool example of nature plus nurture! – Eff Aug 3 at 7:09
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    @ArcanistLupus It's almost like they trained as hard as if their lives depended on it... :) – zovits Aug 3 at 7:25
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    I once visited a zoo that had a large enclosure for cheetahs, and “feeding” the cheetah entailed hooking meat on to a zip wire running across the enclosure’s longest side. The meat hook was then propelled at high speed along the zip wire and the cheetahs had to “chase” it in order to eat. The idea was to simulate hunting to provide physical exercise. – Konrad Rudolph Aug 3 at 10:27
  • Related question biology.stackexchange.com/questions/40367/… – rafraf Aug 10 at 6:44

Can animals train to be noticeably stronger, faster, more agile.. than other animals of the same species?

Yes, of course!

Humans are animals, so yes! But even in non-human animals. You can look for example in tutorial on how to train a dog (or a horse) for specific skills (speed, high jump, long jump, etc...).

It seems that variation in animals is very small

Such a general statement can only be wrong. Consider dogs as example. The fastest dogs go at 72 km/h (~45 mph) while many dog breeds barely reach 5 km/h (~3 mph; and they're all consider of the same species). So, there is a lot of genetic variation among dogs.

Now when it comes to variation caused by training it is a little harder to estimate. Consider having a look at Guy and Snow (1977), McKeever et al. (1987), Evans and Rose (1987) and Rivero and Piercy (2008). For what it is worth, note for example that trained racing horse can go up to 70km/h while most horses can go only up to 40-45 km/h. There are a number of studies showing the effect of training on horses.

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    I don't think that dog breeds are a great example. Clearly, breeds differ substantially due to genetic differences. It doesn't take much thought to understand that certain anatomical features would be better suited for fast running, say. However, the OP is looking for differences due to training/exercise/diet. It doesn't matter that they are in the same species, the differences are still due to non-training related causes. Therefore, I think that it would be better to use an example of variation within a breed (Although, even this could be partly due to genetic differences)- – Eff Aug 3 at 7:08
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    @Eff Highly agreed! If you want to use dogs as an example then take two same sex pups from the same litter and provide a life of luxury to one but take the other on for police K-9 training and five years later let them play and I am positive you will notice great differences. – MonkeyZeus Aug 3 at 11:59
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    @Eff The claim I was responding to was It seems that variation in animals is very small. I indeed considered a case where a fair part of the variance is likely genetic. I never meant that the observed difference between a chihuahua and a greyhound is caused by training. But I very much agree that this is a confusing phrasing, so I clarified that I talked about genetic variance and added a paragraph with papers on the effect of training in horses. Thanks for your comment! – Remi.b Aug 3 at 14:20
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    @Remi.b Okay, there is no disagreement then. And yes, your edits clarify things a lot. – Eff Aug 3 at 14:34

Definitely when it comes to horses. They are selectively bred for generations to work in different sports: dressage, show jumping, endurance, racing and so on. As one example: to train a horse for olympic level dressage takes ten years or more in order to build muscles and coordination.

Some example of horse sports, several of them describes how horses are trained: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_equestrian_sports#Olympic_disciplines

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    Welcome to Biology.SE! Thank you for answering the question. I'm not sure, though, what the link to a list of horse sports does to help support or add to your answer. – De Novo Aug 2 at 20:11
  • Even our ordinary trail-riding horses will be out of shape in the early spring, and will get tired doing rides that they can easily handle later in the year. – jamesqf Aug 3 at 4:46

Wild animals may have less variation in traits such as speed of running, if they predominantly eat similar diets, and if the slow ones are regularly getting eaten and failing to breed. Wild animals likely run at around the optimal speed for their environment.

The process of training implies some level of domestication - humans protecting the animals, perhaps modifying their diet, and expecting them to perform a service in return. In this situation, the animal's day-to-day activities would likely change, together with the change in diet. Animals' physiology tend to be able to change substantially in response to these kind of environmental and behavioural changes (phenotypic plasticity).

So I guess the answer is yes to whether animals can be trained to perform differently, but the question of whether they would want to is maybe open.

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    One could argue that it isn't a matter of wild animals having "less variation" but rather that the variation is harder to observe because the weaker ones are so much less likely to survive. – nurdyguy Aug 3 at 22:02

There are actually two questions here:

  1. Can animals train to be noticeably stronger, faster, more agile.. than other animals of the same species?'

As a couple other have stated, yes. This is in fact evident in horse racing, dog racing, dog agility course competitions, and a few other similar competitions. If animals couldn't be trained to become stronger/faster then those sports would not exist as they are.

  1. Is there natural variation in strength/agility/speed/etc in animals they way there is in humans?

This question is implied by your statement "It seems that variation in animals is very small..." In fact, statistical analysis asserts that virtually every measurable difference between organisms falls on a Normal Distribution (see also Bell Curve). However, this only works if we compares like populations, or "apples with apples". For example, I certainly would not compare a bull dog's running speed with that of a whippet (racing dog similar to a greyhound, and a cool Devo song). But if I compared all whippets then they would be normally distributed. Now, if I had a trained whippet vs a non-trained whippet then we are again going to run in to problems (see point 1).

Here is the thing with the normal distribution though, 68% of the population lies within 1 standard deviation of the average. This means that over 2/3 of the population is pretty close to average. Further, 95% of the population lies within 2 standard deviations of the average.

Here is a slightly more real example of this: The average height of men worldwide is roughly 5'10" and the standard deviation is roughly 3". Thus 68% of men world wide are between 5'7"and 6'1" tall. (Yes, I'm rounding these numbers a bit but you get the point.) You can do something similar with weight, strength, etc, though certain attributes are difficult to measure.

What does this really mean? Well, the natural speed of say a cheetah in the wild is normally distributed. That is, if we could measure them all. However, in the wild not all cheetahs survive. As part of survival, only the fastest and strongest survive so what we actually have is a much smaller set. This is why animals might appear to have less variation.

If you look then you can see the variations in nature. Go to a park and stop and look at the pigeons. Some are actually quite fat while others are not.

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