Using sunscreen is not distinctly a human need. While we use special creams, powders and sprays designed specifically to reflect and protect from the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays, animals use a number of methods to protect themselves from the sun.Not unlike humans, animals can get sunburned. Any skin exposed to the sun runs the risk of getting damaged from the ultraviolet radiation. Some animals have their own form of sun protection. Birds are protected by their feathers which prevent much of the sun’s rays from reaching their skin. Reptiles are protected by their scales; they are more at risk of overheating than getting sunburned.Most animals are not protected by feathers or scales. There are many species of animals that are covered in fur, but fur doesn’t protect them completely. Animals with lighter-colored or shorter fur are more susceptible to sunburns; fur only minimizes the UV damage. There are also areas, such as the ears, nose and around the eyes, that are less covered and more sensitive.
Polar bears, however, are very different than most furry animals. Their fur is colorless and transparent, and the strands are hollow. The fur scatters and reflects visible light, while absorbing UV light, which makes them appear white. The skin of the polar bear, however, is black, which helps it to absorb heat in the frigid arctic environment.
The hippopotamus has two different methods to avoid the sun. The hippo does most of its eating outside the water at night, while it spends much of its day submerged in muddy water. The murky water and the vegetation provide some sun protection and keep the hippo cool. But when they do venture from the water, they produce a sticky, pink colored oil that is call “blood-sweat.” However, the oil is neither blood nor sweat. The pigments in the oil absorb the UV light and help to regulate the hippo’s body temperature. The oil also has antibiotic qualities which are especially helpful since hippos often get injured in fights.
Mammals don’t produce their own sunscreen. Elephants will throw dirt or sand on their heads and backs to protect from the sun and from annoying insects. Sea lions will cover themselves in sand. Rhinoceroses, pigs and warthogs will cover themselves in a layer of mud to do much the same thing. All of these work as sun protection, because they are physically blocking the sun’s rays from reaching the skin.
With the amount of time whales spend on or near the surface, studies have shown that whales are at risk of sunburn. Blue whales tan when exposed to UV rays to avoid sunburns, while sperm whales produce a special protein that protects their cells from UV damage. Fin whales produce melanin to prevent some of the sun damage. Even though there are ways the whales fight sunburn, there are studies which show there is still damage to the whale’s skin from the UV rays.
Chimpanzees, gorillas and other primates are active earlier in the morning and in the afternoon and evening. They stay out of the midday sun as much as they can, avoiding both the UV rays and the heat. There are some animals that avoid daylight altogether. Koalas are mostly nocturnal and spend much of their time sleeping in the shade of the eucalyptus trees. Desert-dwelling creatures tend to be nocturnal, avoiding the heat of the day and the blistering sun.
In the wild, animals take advantage of the shade of trees or burrow underground to avoid the heat and exposure of the sun. In zoos, the foliage provides some shelter, but the animals also rely on their keepers. Special shelters are built into habitats to provide the shade the animals need to stay cool and protected from the UV rays.
When you go to the zoo, look at the animals and the habitats to see if you can tell how they avoid the sun’s rays. The sun is strongest from ten in the morning to four in the afternoon. See how many of the animals are in the shade or sleeping during that time. But if you go, make sure you wear your sunscreen and hat.