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Pooing on your legs, and getting spiky – how the natural world stays cool in the heat!

Every living thing will be affected by the heatwave we are expecting in the UK. Look after your pets, keep those bird feeders and ponds full, create some shady places, water your plants, stay hydrated and why not change your routine to suit the weather conditions, like many of the other animals do.

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The United Kingdom is facing it’s first ever red weather warning for extreme heat, and unprecedented temperatures of >40 degrees C are predicted.

News stories give advice on how to stay cool and sleep at night and organisations like Age UK have information sheets available with suggestions for helping our most vulnerable. Of course, a red warning means that EVERYONE, and not just the most vulnerable, need to follow advice about staying healthy in the heat.

What about our wildlife? We can make sure we have areas of shade and water to drink in our gardens and yards, but unlike some humans who are relishing the idea of a suntan and possibly risking their health in a heatwave, animals tend to take extreme weather more seriously and look after themselves without needing to be told what to do!

How animals keep cool:

Humans are animals – and one of the ways we stay cool is to sweat. In extreme heat, our body opens up the blood vessels that are close to the skin. Blood carries heat from inside of our body to the surface, where it can benefit from the cooling effect of sweat evaporating.

You might not realise your pet dog can sweat too. Dogs sweat through their paw pads but it is not as effective as human sweating, which is why dogs use panting as a cooling mechanism instead. This works because of the cooling sensation of moisture evaporating from their mouth and tongue, and exchanging the hot ait from their lungs with cooler air from outside. The Battersea dogs home has some good summer advice for dog owners.

Camels are renowned for their ability to survive the harsh conditions of the desert and contrary to what we may have heard, their humps don’t in fact carry water, but fat. A camel uses its hump(s) to regulate its body temperature. At night when the soaring daytime temperatures drop dramatically, the store of fat keeps the camel warm. In the daytime it prevents the sun from penetrating the camel’s body so keeps it cool. The energy (fat) stored in a camel’s hump is what keeps it going when food is scarce, and this ungualte’s (an ungulate is a hooved mammal) secret to staying hydrated is down to its oval shaped blood cells and not storing water in its hump. A camel can drink 113 litres (30 gallons) of water in 13 minutes and rehydrates faster than any other mammal.

Longleat 2009

Birds have a variety of ways of keeping cool:

  • Birds head for the shade, take a dip in cooling water or change their routine to make use of the cooler parts of the day for activity and the hotter times for rest.
  • You might see a bird panting or doing a special type of movement by vibrating their neck muscles, called a gular flutter. Some birds, including the heron can open their beaks and then flutter the gular muscles in their throat while breathing rapidly. This quickly carries heat out of the bird’s body and brings in cooler air.
  • Urohydrosis is used by some birds in really hot environments. Birds have a single opening (called a cloaca) for their digestive, urinary and reproductive tracts. This means their poo and wee comes out mixed together. Some vultures and storks excrete their droppings onto their scaly legs to cool them down. It works in a similar way to sweating or panting. The evaporation of the liquid has a cooling effect.

All the above examples are of warm blooded animals and birds that need to keep a relatively constant temperature. Whatever the outside temperature is, they need to keep their internal temperature regulated. Us humans know only too well how a change in body temperature of only one or two degrees when we are unwell can make us feel dreadful and unable to do much at all. That’s why we need to take it seriously when heatwaves are announced.

Cold blooded animals are different. They get their heat from the outside environment and their body temperature can fluctuate as the outside temperature fluctuates. The size and shape of an animal often indicates whether it will be warm or cold blooded. Large animals like walruses, elephants and rhinos are warm blooded because it would be very difficult to heat up an elephant using an external heat source like the sun! Cold blooded animals tend to be long, thin or flat shaped in comparison.

Reptiles can overheat though and need to find shade so they can reduce their temperature when they get too hot.

How plants keep cool:

Animals can regulate their temperature by moving in and out of shade and heat, or doing activities that help them cool down like panting or even pooing on their own legs! But what about those living things that can’t get up and move?

A plants structure can help it survive extreme heat:

  • Waxy leaves conserve water, and tiny leaves have less surface area for losing water.
  • Some plants like cacti have no leaves at all which results in a low surface to volume ratio and reduces water loss.

On a molecular level, something quite incredible happens when plants get too hot:

  • Plants have a group of proteins called heat-shock proteins or stress-induced proteins. These proteins are found in all living organisms, including us, and are produced when cells are briefly exposed to temperatures above their normal growth temperature.
  • Plant heat shock proteins can protect cells that are exposed to high temperatures.

What about the insects?

Insects are cold blooded so we will find more of them out and about in the warm weather soaking up the sun’s energy. We often take delight in a beautiful butterfly but find the flies seeking shade in our cooler houses are annoying!

Juvenile insects like larvae (caterpillars, for instance) are less able to escape extreme heat. They are less mobile and lack the wings needed to fly away and take shelter in a shady bush (or kitchen with it’s ready supply of food).

Scientists are noting that climate change is having an impact on insects ability to reproduce, and even a slight rise in temperature can have a dramatic effect. Insects are responsible for about 80% of the pollination of trees and bushes on our planet, so it is essential we do what we can to reduce further climate change.

Tortoiseshell butterfly, my garden in West Wales 2021

Stay cool!

It’s important to remember that every living thing will be affected by the heatwave we are expecting in the UK. Look after your pets, keep those bird feeders and ponds full, create some shady places, water your plants, stay hydrated and why not change your routine to suit the weather conditions, like many of the other animals do.

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