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6 April, 2016 - 17:26

Animals can be divided into two groups: those that maintain a constant body temperature in the face of differing environmental temperatures, and those that have a body temperature that is the same as their environment and thus varies with the environmental temperature. Animals that do not have internal control of their body temperature are called ectotherms. The body temperature of these organisms is generally similar to the temperature of the environment, although the individual organisms may do things that keep their bodies slightly below or above the environmental temperature. This can include burrowing underground on a hot day or resting in the sunlight on a cold day. The ectotherms have been called cold-blooded, a term that may not apply to an animal in the desert with a very warm body temperature.

An animal that maintains a constant body temperature in the face of environmental changes is called an endotherm. These animals are able to maintain a level of activity that an ectothermic animal cannot because they generate internal heat that keeps their cellular processes operating optimally even when the environment is cold.


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

Animals conserve or dissipate heat in a variety of ways. Endothermic animals have some form of insulation. They have fur, fat, or feathers. 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 can increase body heat production by shivering, which is an involuntary increase in muscle activity. In addition, arrector pili muscles can contract causing individual hairs to stand up when the individual is cold. This increases the insulating effect of the hair. Humans retain this reaction, which does not have the intended effect on our relatively hairless bodies; it causes “goose bumps” instead. Mammals use layers of fat as insulation also. Loss of significant amounts of body fat will compromise an individual’s ability to conserve heat.

Ectotherms and endotherms use their circulatory systems to help maintain body temperature. Vasodilation, the opening up of arteries to the skin by relaxation of their smooth muscles, brings more blood and heat to the body surface, facilitating radiation and evaporative heat loss, cooling the body. Vasoconstriction, the narrowing of blood vessels to the skin by contraction of their smooth muscles, reduces blood flow in peripheral blood vessels, forcing blood toward the core and vital organs, conserving heat. Some animals have adaptions to their circulatory system that enable them to transfer heat from arteries to veins that are flowing next to each other, 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. The countercurrent adaptation is found in dolphins, sharks, bony fish, bees, and hummingbirds.

Some ectothermic animals use changes in their behavior to help regulate body temperature. They 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 in the evening to capture heat on a cold desert night before entering their burrows.

Thermoregulation is coordinated by the nervous system (Figure 16.2). The processes of temperature control are centered in the hypothalamus of the advanced animal brain. The hypothalamus maintains the set point for body temperature through reflexes that cause vasodilation or vasoconstriction and shivering or sweating. The sympathetic nervous system under control of the hypothalamus directs the responses that effect the changes in temperature loss or gain that return the body to the set point. The set point may be adjusted in some instances. During an infection, compounds called pyrogens are produced and circulate to the hypothalamus resetting the thermostat to a higher value. This allows the body’s temperature to increase to a new homeostatic equilibrium point in what is commonly called a fever. The increase in body heat makes the body less optimal for bacterial growth and increases the activities of cells so they are better able to fight the infection.



Figure 16.2 The body is able to regulate temperature in response to signals from the nervous system.

When bacteria are destroyed by leukocytes, 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?