Close your eyes and picture these animals: a squirrel, a coyote, a deer and a beaver. These animals are all different sizes, eat different things and live in different homes, but they all have something in common. Fur!
Fur is one of the adaptations that sorts an animal into the mammal group. Fur is a collection of individual hairs that covers an animal’s skin. Hair is made from the protein keratin, which also makes fingernails, feathers and reptile scales. Fur plays a big role in the animals’ lives. It protects, conceals and feels!
A fur coat can provide many benefits to an animal. Fur can be like a winter coat keeping the mammal warm by trapping heat. It can also be like a raincoat, teaming up with oils to help waterproof the animal. These hairs, called down hairs, are short, fuzzy, curly hairs closest to an animals’ skin.
Guard hairs are the outer layer of a fur coat. These are long, stiff hairs that can act like sunscreen, protecting skin from harmful UV rays. This outer layer also comes in different colors to help camouflage the animal in its habitat. Some colors may even act like warning signs, like the stripe on a skunk.
Some hairs are specialized. Whiskers have nerve endings just like our fingertips. These nerves can feel the environment around the animal when they brush up against a rough rock or a bumpy tree. A porcupine’s quills are enlarged hairs that can be used to defend against a predator. An elephant has scattered stiff hairs called bristles that keep it cool by wicking heat off its skin.
Humans are mammals too, and we do have hair, but few would consider themselves to have a fur coat. There are other animals that are light on hair as well.
Aquatic mammals like dolphins and whales either have very few hairs or lose their hair as adults. Scientists think that because they have blubber for keeping them warm, they don’t need as much hair. Others think less hair helps reduce resistance while swimming in water.
Another famous example is the naked mole rat, which lives in Africa. They have whiskers, but due to their warm underground environment, hair is not needed for sun or temperature protection.
Explore at home
There is no way a deer will let you touch its stiff guard hairs, and you should never try to get close to a wild animal. However, a friendly pet dog or cat might be a perfect subject to get a closer look at fur.
Look through a magnifying glass next time you have a cuddle session with your pet. Can you see the different layers of fur? Does your pet react when you touch its whiskers? Can you find a place in your yard where your pet’s fur coat camouflages?
Teachers, bring fur to your class!
The Forest Preserve District of Will County can come to you! Let your students see wild animal fur up close with the Illinois Mammals in-school program. This one-hour program also includes mammal classification, habitats and food preferences. Students explore local mammal species firsthand by investigating real fur and bone samples. Sign up today.
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