Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why Reptiles Won't Wear Fur

Have you ever seen a furry lizard? A fuzzy snake? A wooly turtle? Me neither. That's because a reptile in a permanent fur coat would whither like Superman with a pocket full of kryptonite. But why? Other animals are so content in their soft, luxurious layers... Why can't reptiles be?

"I wouldn't be caught dead in that fur coat you're wearing". Photo by Naypong at freedigitalphotos.net.
Animals exchange heat with their environments in four major ways: conduction, convection, radiation and evaporation:
  • Conduction is when heat moves from a hotter area to a colder area across a still surface. If you stand barefoot on a cold sidewalk, the heat in your feet is going to transfer to the cooler surface of the sidewalk by conduction and you will get cooler (which is nice in the hot summer, but uncomfortable when the weather starts to get chilly). Conduction can happen when the body is in contact with a solid (like a sidewalk), a liquid (like a bath), or a gas (like the air around you).
  • Convection is essentially conduction with movement, and this movement makes the transfer of heat even faster. If you are standing inside and it is 70ºF in the building, you will likely be fairly comfortable. But if you are outside on a windy 70º day, even though the environment is the same temperature, you will get colder faster.
  • We are all familiar with the warming effects of the sun's radiation, but in reality, all objects give off electromagnetic radiation. Radiation within the visible spectrum we perceive as colored light, but most radiation is outside our visible range.
  • Evaporation happens when water (like sweat or moist breath) converts from a liquid state to a gaseous state, taking heat away from the body. Animals are always in contact with something (like surfaces, air, or water), so conduction is always occurring.
The speed at which an animal's body heats or cools depends on the temperature difference between the animal's body and its environment. That is, in a very cold environment, an animal will cool quickly and in a very hot environment, an animal will heat up quickly, whereas in an environment that is close to the animal's body temperature, the animal will heat or cool very slowly. To put this in mathematical terms, let's call the animal's body temperature Tb and the environmental temperature Te. The bigger (Tb-Te), the faster the animal will cool. And the bigger (Te-Tb), the faster the animal will heat up. This difference between Tb and Te (in either direction) is called the driving force of heat exchange.

Imagine this circle is an animal's body,
Tb is the animal's body temperature and
Te is the environmental temperature.
The bigger (Tb-Te), the faster the
animal will lose heat and cool down.
This works the other way around, too.
The bigger (Te-Tb), the faster the
animal will heat up.

 
What happens if you put fur on that animal? Now you can imagine this animal as having two separate layers, a body (with the temperature Tb) and an insulation layer (with the temperature Ti). Now for heat to be exchanged, it has to be conducted twice, once between the environment and the insulation, and again between the insulation and the animal's body. Ti is always going to be some intermediate temperature between Tb and Te and so the driving force of heat exchange will be much lower and the animal will heat up or cool down much more slowly. The thicker this insulation layer, the more stable Ti becomes and heat exchange happens even more slowly. Also, because insulation prevents movement at the body's surface, insulation layers eliminate any heat exchange at the body's surface (but not the surface of the insulation layer) by convection. (By the way, this logic also holds true if the animal has feathers or blubber or even a winter coat).

This inside circle represents an animal's body and the outside circle shows its insulation
layer. Tb is the animal's body temperature, Te is the environmental temperature and Ti is
the insulation temperature. Ti is always between Tb and Te, so the driving force of
heat exchange is reduced and the animal's body temperature does not change quickly
at all, even if the environmental temperature is extreme.
Most animals that have fur are mammals, as are most animals with blubber layers (like seals and whales) and animals that wear coats (like people and Paris Hilton purse dogs) and most animals with feathers are birds. What do these insulated mammals and birds have in common? They are endotherms. They generate most of their own body heat. This means that by slowing the exchange of heat between the animal's body and environment, the animal is provided with more time to generate heat and the insulation then helps to preserve this heat.

But reptiles (as well as amphibians and fish) are ectotherms. They get almost all of their heat from their environments. They maintain their body temperatures behaviorally, by choosing what environment to hang out in and what position to put their body in. If they are cold, they go bask in the sun to absorb radiation heat or lay on a warmed rock to absorb conducted heat. If they are hot, they lay on a cool rock in the shade to lose heat by conduction or soak in a cool stream to lose heat by convection. To maintain a relatively constant body temperature, they are constantly moving between warm and cool areas to adjust their body temperature one direction or another.

Many ectotherms rely on their ability to adjust their body temperatures quickly, and this ability depends on creating large driving forces of heat exchange. If an ectothermic reptile were to have an insulation layer, like fur, it would reduce its ability to adjust its body temperature by conduction and convection. It would lose its heat slowly and not be able to replace it fast enough. In the end, it would become too cold. It may seem paradoxical, but a lizard in a fur coat would likely die of cold-related physical issues (if not embarrassment).

Interestingly enough, just because lizards don't have fur doesn't mean they couldn't have hair. In fact, some of them do have hair, but not how you may think. Hair, fur, feathers, and scales are all made up in large part by keratin proteins. Many gecko species are well known for their wide, sticky toes that help them climb smooth, vertical surfaces (like walls). Their secret? Ultra-thin keratin hairs growing out of the geckos' feet provide a chemical adhesive force to keep the animal secured to the wall surface. So reptiles may not have a need for fur, but some of them have an innovative use for hair.

Want to know more about hairy geckos?

Autumn K, Liang YA, Hsieh ST, Zesch W, Chan WP, Kenny TW, Fearing R, & Full RJ (2000). Adhesive force of a single gecko foot-hair. Nature, 405 (6787), 681-5 PMID: 10864324

2 comments:

  1. I'd predicted that your interesting post would revolve around heat and ectotherm/endotherm issues, but there's another thread to add to the logic of adaptation: Fur can adversely affect locomotion in animals low to the ground or slithering directly upon it. Snake locomotion relies on friction in one way or another (summarized at http://www.ucs.louisiana.edu/~brm2286/locomotn.htm ). The effects of various kinds of fur would have to be tested, but I don't expect it would work well, certainly not for rectilinear locomotion, which involves scale motion. For taller reptiles with leggy locomotion off the ground, some kinds of fur would be possible, though with unnecessary effects on metabolism. Why use energy to carry fur, even if the insulation effects were neutral? The shorter terrestrial reptiles I'd think would be low enough to get their fur dirty and not always have a good way to get rid of it. So the weight of fur added to the weight of dirt would be a special problem for reptiles because of metabolism and their leg position, farther to the side than mammals'. For swimming reptiles, fur would affect their hydrodynamics. Extra weight and consequent loss of speed get in the way of the getaway.

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