How Do Animals Beat the Heat on Hot Days?

When heat and humidity combine to make the great outdoors a little unpleasant, it's good to know we can escape to the cool comfort of air-conditioned buildings and cars for some relief. Wild animals don't have this luxury, but they do have some strategies to help them beat the heat.

An indigo bunting standing in water. (Photo courtesy of Bertrand Leclecq)

When we have to be outdoors during a heat wave, our bodies will sweat to help us maintain our body temperature and not overheat. However, most animals don't have enough sweat glands to sweat like humans. Only monkeys, apes and horses sweat to help stay cool. But many animals still take a human-like approach to beating the heat by taking shelter during the hottest parts of the day.


From reptiles to mammals, many animals seek shelter from the sun when it is hot. For reptiles, beating the heat is especially critical because they are cold-blooded, or ectothermic. This means they use the environment to control their body temperature. They can overheat quickly on a hot day, so they often seek cooler locales. Reptiles like lizards and snakes might burrow underground or move under a rock or log. Turtles will often go deeper in the water, where it is cooler.

 

Words to know

Burrow: A hole or tunnel dug by a small animal.

Dilate: To become wider, larger or more open.

Ectothermic: An animal that has a body temperature that varies with the temperature of its surroundings.

Excrement: Human or animal bodily waste.

Membrane: A thin sheet or tissue that acts as a boundary or lining.

Wallow: To roll about or lie in the mud.

 

Birds, too, seek shade in the heat, but they also have other strategies to help keep them cool. Like dogs, some birds can do their own version of panting to help them stay cool. Their version is called gular fluttering, and it involves breathing with their mouths open while also vibrating their throat membranes. This causes excess heat to leave their bodies.


Another human-like strategy birds employ to cool off is taking a dip in some cool water. Some mammals, including deer, will head for the water to cool off during a heat wave as well. Even insects like bees will take a dip in some water to cool off.


Because many animals rely on water to stay cool, you can help them beat the heat by leaving water out for them. If you have a birdbath in your yard, you're already helping, but make sure to clean it and replenish the water frequently.


Birdbaths will benefit birds and also some insects that need a quick dip to cool off. Even regular yard work, like watering the garden, can help provide necessary water for insects.


Many other animals could benefit from a splash or sip of water but may not be able to get to a birdbath. For small mammals like ground squirrels, chipmunks and even raccoons and others, leaving containers of water out in your yard can help. If you can, put out a few containers, at least one very shallow for the smallest critters and others a bit deeper. Clean the containers regularly and refill with water as needed.


Water isn't the only thing animals rely on to keep cool in extreme temperatures. Some have developed other unique strategies. Take birds like turkey vultures and storks. They will poop on their legs to help cool them off. This works similar to how sweat does for humans. Their excrement is liquid, so as it dries on their legs heat is carried away from their bodies, which lowers their body temperature.


A less disgusting but still dirty method of keeping cool is wallowing in the mud. Pigs are probably the most well-known wallowers, but hippos, buffalo and boars will also roll around in mud to cool off. Wallowing in mud also works much like sweating. When water in the mud evaporates, it carries heat away from the animals' bodies and brings their body temperature down.


Still another way some animals cool off is with their ears. Rabbits, including eastern cottontails, have a lot of blood vessels in their ears. When it's hot, the blood vessels will dilate to allow heat to dissipate. Similarly, elephants can flap their ears to cool the blood flowing through their ears, helping them cool off in the heat.

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