Beyond Your Backyard: "Water For Wildlife - Part Two - Heatwaves"
Kimberly J. Epp
On Saturday August 11th, Moose Jaw became the hottest spot in Canada, reaching a high of 42.3 degrees. If you were melting, you were not the only ones. However, wildlife do have ways of adapting to the heat. It's not as easy for our domestic animals. Please keep your pets at home during hot weather. Walking dogs in such hot weather is hard on them. Plus the cement or asphalt is always at a much higher temperature, burning their tender paw pads. You wouldn't walk on the hot pavement in bare feet yourself; so it's probably not best to have your pets do it either.
Hyperthermia (heat stress) is painful for both wildlife and pets. And please, don't leave them in your vehicle for any amount of time. Cats can also kill vulnerable wildlife attempting to cool down, so keep them inside your home as well.
Although heat waves are normal, with climate change they are getting longer and more intense each year. Warmer temperatures can also lead to a chain reaction of other changes around the world. Heatwaves increasing air temperatures also affect the oceans, weather patterns, snow and ice, and plants and animals. There is undeniable evidence that animals, birds and plants are being affected by our warming world by both their distribution and behaviour. Many species are moving towards the poles in response to the rise in global temperature. For the most part, wild animals can adapt. When these heatwaves are prolonged, however, that's when it gets more difficult.
It's often the youngest of the creatures that are the most vulnerable as they haven't yet adapted, and still rely on their parents for everything. Some baby animals were brought in to the Moose Jaw Animal Clinic following that very hot day.
If you find a young animal in heat distress, please call the Moose Jaw Animal Clinic at (306) 692-3622 or the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Saskatchewan's hotline at (306) 242-7177. If you live in other parts of SK, the hotline will contact a rehabber local to your area. They will also direct you on what to do; which generally includes placing the young animal/baby bird in a dark box and away from pets or children. They will direct you on whether or not it will get picked up - or where you can transport it to.
So how do most wild animals adapt to heatwaves? There are a number of ways.
Hares can regulate their temperature through their ears, and desert-dwelling hares have the largest of ears. The blood vessels in the ears dilate, encouraging their surface-area-to volume ratio and encouraging heat loss. The desert-dwelling hares can conserve water because they don't lose moisture through sweating or panting. If, on the other hand, a hare is too cold, these blood vessels constrict to conserve body heat.
Elephants use their ears for temperature regulation by flapping them like fans. This keeps the blood that flows through the vessels in their ears cooler. Between the flapping and the thin skin, blood moving through the ears can cool by as much as 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Elephants also spray water on their ears to magnify the effect. They cover their bodies in mud to also help keep cool. When possible, a dip in cool water is also a helpful way for an elephant to keep cool, but those big ears are always available, whereas water sometimes is not!
Birds can keep cool through gular fluttering, much as a dog keeps cool through panting. Gular fluttering is vibrating muscles and bones in the throat. This helps regulate temperature by increasing evaporation through the membranes in the throat. The more a bird vibrates them, the more the moist throat membranes are exposed to air, allowing for better evaporation. As this process involves only a small number of muscle and bone, it doesn't require a lot of energy. This makes this method an efficient way of cooling down. Types of birds that employ this method include pelicans, herons, doves, owls, quail and nighthawks.
Some animals escape the elements in winter through hibernation, but there are animals that also escape the heat through estivation - a form of sleeping through scorching temperatures. Estivation helps the animal survive by slowing down their metabolism, which means they don't have to eat as much. This is helpful when prey and vegetation is scarce. Snails, for example, estivate to prevent from drying out.
Reptiles regulate their temperatures through the air, so if it is too hot they will seek shadier areas. If they want to boost their metabolism, they seek the sun. Because they don't regulate their temperatures internally, reptiles require far less food. Their dependence on temperatures leaves them however much more susceptible to environmental changes.
Some animals wallow in the mud to keep cool. As water from the mud evaporates from an animal's skin, it carries heat away and brings down their body temperature, sometimes by as much as 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. So for a pig choosing mud over water, it has nothing to do with a pig wishing to be dirty - as they are actually very clean mammals. In the mud, water evaporates much more slowly than water alone, which allows the animal to feel cooler for a longer period of time. There's a reason why pigs are one of the most intelligent creatures on earth!
Stay tuned for the third installment of "Water For Wildlife - Wildfires", where I will discuss how wildlife are able to survive wildfires, and how you can help them if you live in an area that is experiencing wildfires. Remember, stay cool out there - and help domestic and wild animals by putting out cool, fresh water every day. You can also use your garden hose to spray down the shrubs and trees to help the wildlife. Leave out bowls of water in shaded areas that also offer animals protection from predators. With bird baths, keep in close access to shrubs and trees. And remember to confine your pets, to prevent them from preying on wildlife and searching for water to cool down. You can make a difference!
Epp is an Environmental Educator and Nature Writer based out of Moose Jaw, SK. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.