Baby, it’s hot outside

This week’s heat wave has us thinking about how some of the furred and feathered critters are beating the heat. Like people, wildlife can withstand changes in the weather and maintain their body temperature whether it’s hot or cold outside, but there are limits. When summer temperatures are on the rise, critters depend on these adaptations to keep from overheating.

Shedding: Most mammals have a dense coat of fur. By shedding the thick undercoat that keeps them warm in winter, less heat is “trapped” in the animal’s body, allowing them to keep cooler in the summer heat.

A red fox shedding its coat. USFWS

Hiding: Animals will hide under rocks, foliage, fallen trees and any other structure that blocks the sun’s rays, even a parent’s wings! Some animals stay hidden all day and come out at night to feed.

A frog hiding in a tree (left) and and osprey shields her chicks from the sun (right.) USFWS

Swimming: Who doesn’t like taking a dip in a lake or river on a hot day? Some animals seek out ponds, rivers, streams or any body of water they can find to stay cool. Submerging exposed skin helps wildlife dissipate their body heat to the cooler water around them. Some birds fluff up their feathers after a bath and open up their wings to catch a breeze, helping them cool off even more.

A moose goes for a swim in the Green River of Wyoming. Video by Tom Koerner/USFWS
A black bear (left) and an American robin (right) take a dip. USFWS

Panting: Dogs aren’t the only ones panting! While birds can’t truly pant like dogs, they do have their own kind of panting. Some birds take it a step further and do something called fluttering. Gular fluttering, as it’s more formally known, is a behavior common to nocturnal insectivores including common nighthawks and whip-poor-wills. Fluttering is a combination of rapid, open-mouth breathing and quick vibration of the moist throat membranes that causes evaporation. As excess heat leaves the bird’s body with each exhalation, the bird cools. You might also see this behavior from double-crested cormorants, owls and mourning doves as they rest during the hottest times of the day.

A common nighthawk keeping cool. Photo courtesy of Victor Fazio/Creative Commons.

Urohidrosis: Do not try this at home! While it may be cooling, it’s certainly smelly. Urohidrosis is how some birds like vultures, and sometimes seals, cool themselves by evacuating their bowels on their feet (or flippers) which cools them down through evaporation. I’ll stick to sweating.

Turkey vulture. Photo courtesy of Roy Lowe.

Radiating heat: Hares have very large ears compared with their body sizes. During the summer, more blood circulates through the blood vessels in their ears, releasing heat into the environment and bringing cooler blood back to the body.

A snowshoe hare. Bill Thompson

Sleeping: Bears hibernate to avoid the challenging conditions of winter, but some animals use a variation of this technique to avoid the hot, dry conditions of summer. The name for this state is “estivation” and many reptiles and amphibians estivate by moving underground where it is cooler and more humid.

A spotted turtle. Leah Hawthorn/USFWS

We can learn a thing or two from wildlife this summer. Sleeping, hiding or swimming through summer doesn’t sound half bad!

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We conserve nature in the northeast U.S. for the benefit of wildlife and the American people. Love your natural and wild places! Explore the world around you by hiking, fishing, hunting, and volunteering. More info at fws.gov/northeast

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U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Northeast Region

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Conserving wildlife and habitats from Maine to Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania.

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