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Keeping Britain’s Wildlife Cool During Summer

As summer leaps into our lives, both humans and animals have to find ways to cope with the heat. Aside from comfort, beating the heat is a key factor for the British animal population’s survival. The various methods that UK animals use to keep their body temperatures down are fascinating revealing an impressive range of behavioural, physical, and physiological adaptations. This article, presented by eDNA monitoring specialists NatureMetrics, dives into these creative techniques, illustrating the resilience and adaptability of British wildlife in the face of rising temperatures.

Photo from Pexels

Behavioural Adaptations

Animals use plenty of methods to avoid the scorching sun, but one of the most common includes making changes to their activity patterns. Many UK species become nocturnal in the summer, taking advantage of the cooler nights to forage and move around. Red foxes, for instance, are generally adaptable and can be active at any time, but they tend to become more nocturnal in the summer to avoid the heat. Similarly, badgers and other bat species have increased nocturnal activity, allowing them to stay active without overheating.

Like humans, animals seek shade and shelter as another typical behavioural adaptation. During the hottest hours of the day, you may see animals napping in dense undergrowth or beneath trees. Squirrels, too, often retreat to tree hollows or shaded branches to limit their exposure to the sun – an important demonstration of the value of natural habitats, and how important it is to protect them.

Physical adaptations

The physical characteristics of animals can also play a significant role in how they handle heat, and an animal’s ability to dissipate heat can be influenced by their body size and shape. For example, smaller animals like bank voles and wood mice have a higher surface area to volume ratio, helping them to lose heat faster. This adaptation proves useful for keeping a consistent body temperature during the warmer months.

Coloration and fur can further assist in helping an animal stay cool. Just as a white t-shirt is great for keeping us cool in the heat, light-coloured fur or feathers can reflect sunlight and reduce the amount of heat absorbed. Many British mammals, including deer, develop lighter coats in the summer. Of course, as temperatures increase, many animals lose their winter coats, replacing dense fur with lighter, shorter hair that’s better suited to warm conditions. This seasonal change helps to prevent overheating and allows for better heat dissipation.

Physiological adaptations

When it comes to physiological adaptations, evaporative cooling mechanisms like panting and sweating are vital. Dogs, for example, are well-known for panting when they feel hot, which improves water evaporation from their respiratory surfaces, effectively cooling their bodies. Some livestock, like sheep, also pant to regulate their body temperature. Horses, on the other hand, sweat much like humans do, losing heat as the sweat evaporates from their skin.

Another (somewhat strange) physiological adaptation is one known as gular fluttering. It’s less common in the United Kingdom, but this technique, used by some birds such as pigeons, involves rapid vibrations of the throat to increase evaporative cooling. While not as common in the more temperate UK climate, it’s a fascinating example of the different methods animals use to stay cool.

Impact of Climate Change

Currently, the UK’s wildlife still has effective means to keep cool in the summer months, but climate change is progressively threatening to make things more difficult. Rising temperatures and increasingly erratic weather patterns are affecting animals’ ability to stay cool, pushing many species to the brink of their adaptability.

One such example of this is the European hedgehog, which is already in decline due to habitat loss and road accidents. Now, climate change is adding an extra layer of difficulty. Hotter summers can lead to dehydration and overheating, particularly for those living in urban areas with limited access to natural water sources.

Similarly, amphibians such as the common frog are highly sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. Prolonged dry spells can dry up breeding ponds, drastically reducing their reproductive success.

Changes in Habitats

Climate change is also causing a shift in habitats. Warmer temperatures can lead to the northward migration of various animals, but not all can move or find suitable new habitats. For example, the Scottish crossbill, a bird native to Scotland’s Caledonian pine forests, may struggle to find suitable habitats as temperatures rise and the composition of these forests changes.

Phenological Changes

Phenological changes – the shifts in the timing of natural events –  to migration, breeding and flowering are becoming more common. Birds like the chiffchaff are arriving earlier in the UK due to warmer springs, which can lead to mismatches in food availability if their insect prey does not follow the same schedule. These mismatches can affect the birds’ breeding success and survival rates.

Physiological Stress

Increased temperatures place additional physiological stress on animals, and overheating can lead to heat exhaustion and reduced fertility in many species. Fish in rivers and streams, such as salmon, are particularly vulnerable as higher water temperatures reduce oxygen levels, stressing their respiratory systems.

Human-Wildlife Conflict

Climate change also exacerbates human-wildlife conflicts. As natural water sources dry up, animals like badgers and deer may increasingly venture into urban areas searching for food and water, leading to more frequent encounters with humans.

Conclusion

The UK’s animal population is something to be treasured, and the behaviours and evolutionary developments that help them survive in a world dominated by humans is nothing short of remarkable. Learning about and respecting the animals we share the planet with allows us to better support and conserve the wildlife that enriches our environment. Encouraging conservation efforts, protecting natural habitats, and providing resources such as water sources in our gardens are all easy but effective methods to help wildlife thrive over the summer.

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