Thermoregulation

Body temperature affects body activities. Generally, as body temperature rises, enzyme activity rises as well. For every ten degree centigrade rise in temperature, enzyme activity doubles, up to a point. Body proteins, including enzymes, begin to denature and lose their function with high heat (around 50º C for mammals). Enzyme activity will decrease by half for every ten degree centigrade drop in temperature, to the point of freezing, with a few exceptions. Some fish can withstand freezing solid and return to normal with thawing.

Watch this Discovery Channel video on thermoregulation to see illustrations of this process in a variety of animals.


Neural Control of Thermoregulation

The nervous system is important to thermoregulation. The processes of homeostasis and temperature control are centered in the hypothalamus of the advanced animal brain.

Practice Question

Flow chart shows how normal body temperature is maintained. If the body temperature rises, blood vessels dilate, resulting in loss of heat to the environment. Sweat glands secrete fluid. As this fluid evaporates, heat is lost form the body. As a result, the body temperature falls to normal body temperature. If body temperature falls, blood vessels constrict so that heat is conserved. Sweat glands do not secrete fluid. Shivering (involuntary contraction of muscles) releases heat which warms the body. Heat is retained, and body temperature increases to normal.

Figure 1. The body is able to regulate temperature in response to signals from the nervous system.

When bacteria are destroyed by leuckocytes, pyrogens are released into the blood. Pyrogens reset the body’s thermostat to a higher temperature, resulting in fever. How might pyrogens cause the body temperature to rise?

The hypothalamus maintains the set point for body temperature through reflexes that cause vasodilation and sweating when the body is too warm, or vasoconstriction and shivering when the body is too cold. It responds to chemicals from the body. When a bacterium is destroyed by phagocytic leukocytes, chemicals called endogenous pyrogens are released into the blood. These pyrogens circulate to the hypothalamus and reset the thermostat. This allows the body’s temperature to increase in what is commonly called a fever. An increase in body temperature causes iron to be conserved, which reduces a nutrient needed by bacteria. An increase in body heat also increases the activity of the animal’s enzymes and protective cells while inhibiting the enzymes and activity of the invading microorganisms. Finally, heat itself may also kill the pathogen. A fever that was once thought to be a complication of an infection is now understood to be a normal defense mechanism.

Endotherms and Ectotherms

Animals can be divided into two groups: some maintain a constant body temperature in the face of differing environmental temperatures, while others have a body temperature that is the same as their environment and thus varies with the environment. Animals that do not control their body temperature are ectotherms; instead they rely on external energy to dictate their body temperature. This group has been called cold-blooded, but the term may not apply to an animal in the desert with a very warm body temperature. Endotherms are animals that rely on internal sources for body temperature but which can exhibit extremes in temperature. These animals are able to maintain a level of activity at cooler temperature, which an ectotherm cannot due to differing enzyme levels of activity. Poikilotherms are animals with constantly varying internal temperatures, while an animal that maintains a constant body temperature in the face of environmental changes is called a homeotherm.

Heat can be exchanged between an animal and its environment through four mechanisms: radiation, evaporation, convection, and conduction (Figure 2). Radiation is the emission of electromagnetic “heat” waves. Heat comes from the sun in this manner and radiates from dry skin the same way. Heat can be removed with liquid from a surface during evaporation. This occurs when a mammal sweats. Convection currents of air remove heat from the surface of dry skin as the air passes over it. Heat will be conducted from one surface to another during direct contact with the surfaces, such as an animal resting on a warm rock.

Photo A shows the sun. Photo B shows a sweaty person. Photo C shows a lion with its mane blowing in the wind. Photo D shows a person holding a steaming hot drink.

Figure 2. Heat can be exchanged by four mechanisms: (a) radiation, (b) evaporation, (c) convection, or (d) conduction. (credit b: modification of work by “Kullez”/Flickr; credit c: modification of work by Chad Rosenthal; credit d: modification of work by “stacey.d”/Flickr)

Heat Conservation and Dissipation

Animals conserve or dissipate heat in a variety of ways. In certain climates, endothermic animals have some form of insulation, such as fur, fat, feathers, or some combination thereof. Animals with thick fur or feathers create an insulating layer of air between their skin and internal organs. Polar bears and seals live and swim in a subfreezing environment and yet maintain a constant, warm, body temperature. The arctic fox, for example, uses its fluffy tail as extra insulation when it curls up to sleep in cold weather. Mammals have a residual effect from shivering and increased muscle activity: arrector pili muscles cause “goose bumps,” causing small hairs to stand up when the individual is cold; this has the intended effect of increasing body temperature. Mammals use layers of fat to achieve the same end. Loss of significant amounts of body fat will compromise an individual’s ability to conserve heat.

Endotherms use their circulatory systems to help maintain body temperature. Vasodilation brings more blood and heat to the body surface, facilitating radiation and evaporative heat loss, which helps to cool the body. Vasoconstriction reduces blood flow in peripheral blood vessels, forcing blood toward the core and the vital organs found there, and conserving heat. Some animals have adaptions to their circulatory system that enable them to transfer heat from arteries to veins, warming blood returning to the heart. This is called a countercurrent heat exchange; it prevents the cold venous blood from cooling the heart and other internal organs. This adaption can be shut down in some animals to prevent overheating the internal organs. The countercurrent adaption is found in many animals, including dolphins, sharks, bony fish, bees, and hummingbirds. In contrast, similar adaptations can help cool endotherms when needed, such as dolphin flukes and elephant ears.

Some ectothermic animals use changes in their behavior to help regulate body temperature. For example, a desert ectothermic animal may simply seek cooler areas during the hottest part of the day in the desert to keep from getting too warm. The same animals may climb onto rocks to capture heat during a cold desert night. Some animals seek water to aid evaporation in cooling them, as seen with reptiles. Other ectotherms use group activity such as the activity of bees to warm a hive to survive winter.

Many animals, especially mammals, use metabolic waste heat as a heat source. When muscles are contracted, most of the energy from the ATP used in muscle actions is wasted energy that translates into heat. Severe cold elicits a shivering reflex that generates heat for the body. Many species also have a type of adipose tissue called brown fat that specializes in generating heat.