There are some mighty fast flyers in the avian world, but even the most rapid cannot match one nocturnal mammalian speed demon. Scientists studying the flight of Brazilian free-tailed bats have clocked the creatures zipping along at 160 km/h (100 mph), making them the fastest horizontal flyers in the entire animal kingdom.

When it comes to soaring through the skies at speed, there are plenty that know how to get a zoom on. Diving peregrine falcons can hurtle towards the Earth at 300 km/h (186.4 mph), albeit with some help from gravity. Even tiny little hummingbirds have been recorded at diving speeds of 97.2 km/h (60.4 mph).

Horizontal flight is another matter, and it is here that common swift has ruled the roost since claiming the speed record of 111.6 km/h (69.3 mph) back in 2010. But it has now been left in the dust by a winged cave-dweller, and from outside the avian family no less, as bats are the only true flying mammals.

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute attached radio transmitters to the backs of Brazilian free-tailed bats. Using a mobile receiver aboard a small aircraft to localize the signal, the team tracked the flight paths of the animals and measured their speed through the air.

"Initially, we could hardly believe our data, but they were correct: at times, the female bats, which weigh between 11 and 12 grams (0.38 to 0.42 oz), flew at speeds of over 160 kilometres per hour – a new record for horizontal flight," says Kamran Safi from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology.

After consulting local weather data, the team has ruled out the possibility that tailwinds had a part to play. It says that where birds were assumed to fly more efficiently and faster than bats, its findings suggest a re-think might be in order of how we view the flight ability of the two creatures.

The research was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.