Tuesday, February 20, 2007


this is an article from the new york times. i laughed reading it. initially i thought to just send it to plewe, as she seems to always be huddled around her space heater, but i'm cold today and decided the masses may be as well.

February 20, 2007
A Mammal in Winter With a Furnace of Her Own
The other day a group of distraught construction workers in a Washington suburb contacted the local animal control agency with an unusual complaint. It seems there were seven large snakes wrapped around the heating pipes in a manhole, and the crew members worried that the snakes might be dangerous.

I know exactly how they felt. No, not the construction workers, who were spooked by what turned out to be a collection of commonplace and quite harmless hognose and black rat snakes. I’m talking about those poor serpents. It’s been a vicious February, and I, too, have been tempted to weld myself to my home heating unit and to remain there, motionless, until the first summer markdowns. Alas, I cannot. For one thing, my daughter is blocking the vent, and when I try to push her aside, she hisses at me.

For another, I have no good phylogenetic or metabolic excuse. I am not a reptile. I am not at the mercy of the elements, ectothermically dependent on external sources of heat to spur my every move. I make my own heat, a prodigious, endogenous internal inferno, and with that enviable talent, that ability to maintain a steady core temperature however nature’s mercury may surge or plunge, I can plan my day more cannily and venture wherever I choose. Granted, the odds of my freely choosing to gambol in the snow are roughly equivalent to Dennis Kucinich’s shot at the presidency, but I could do it. I’d much rather celebrate the delights of being a warm-blooded homeotherm by visiting the splendid Hall of Mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History, which offers the added attraction of being splendidly indoors.

At the museum, visitors are reminded that mammaldom did not confer any major advantages on its earliest practitioners. The first mammals were small, nocturnal, rodentlike creatures that skittered around the feet of dinosaurs for 140 million years. But when a giant asteroid barreled into Earth 65 million years ago, tossing up a fleecy quilt of dirt and ash that blocked the Sun, cooled the planet and killed off the dinosaurs along with about 70 percent of all living species, mammals and birds with their self-sufficient thermostats were able to weather the squalls, and the two groups quickly diversified to fill the ecovoids.

Today, there are more than 5,400 members of the class Mammalia, ranging in scale from the tiny Kitti’s hog-nosed bat of Thailand, which at 1.5 grams is barely bigger than a carpenter bee, to the great blue whale, 90 feet long, 270,000 pounds heavy, and the most massive creature of any phylum ever to grace our world.

“You find mammals everywhere you look: on the ground, under the ground, near the highest mountaintops, in the sea and air, in arid deserts, superwet rainforests, on polar ice,” said Don E. Wilson, curator of mammals at the museum. “And the key to their success, the reason they are the dominant life forms in such a wide range of habitats, is their ability to maintain a steady internal body temperature almost regardless of what’s going on outside.”

With a predictably balmy internal milieu, the body’s enzymes can operate at a steady clip day and night, lending a mammal the freedom to snack, mate, bully the neighbors, sleep and snack some more as the mood strikes and opportunities arise. A reptile, by comparison, must be perpetually attentive to prevailing winds, for if it eats too much right before a cold snap, its digestive enzymes could shut down prematurely and leave a partially undigested food bolus to putrefy and possibly kill the greedy gulper.

“The more stable your interior, the more independent a life you’ll lead,” said Richard Hill, an environmental physiologist at Michigan State University.

As always, however, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and we mammals must pay for the convenience of homeothermy by eating many extra lunches. The primary way we keep our personal thermostats set to a steady 37 degrees Celsius is through the relentless combustion of calories. A mammal must consume at least 10 times as much food as a similarly sized reptile; and whereas a lizard or a turtle can transform a major portion of a meal into an increase in body mass or a fresh batch of eggs, a mammal can devote at least three-quarters of its intake to fueling its constant body temperature.

Our cellular inventory underscores this obsession with energy production: a mammalian cell is comparatively more endowed than is a reptilian cell with mitochondria, the little structures where food particles are pulverized into usable forms of cell fuel. In a sense, then, our thermal independence is like Henry Ford’s notion that customers can buy a Model T in any color they choose, so long as it’s black. Sure, a chipmunk is free to rustle around in the wintry wood, so long as it’s out there rustling for food.

Beyond our hearty appetite, our four-chambered heart lends homeothermy a hand, allowing blood en route back from the body’s cooler extremities to be stirred and rewarmed before it reaches the all-critical core. Mammals adapted to the cryonic conditions of polar life are particularly adept at micromanaging blood flow. The caribou, for example, responds to plunging temperatures by selectively constricting circulation to its legs, tail and earflaps, the better to minimize heat loss through the appendages and to focus thermal efforts on the vital organs within. A caribou’s legs often feel lizardly cool to the touch, yet the monitoring of every body part is so exquisitely controlled that nothing ever gets critically cold, and reindeer, unlike us tropically descended humans, do not get frostbite.

Still another icebreaker is shivering, the automatic, noncoordinated activation of muscle motions for the sole purpose of generating heat. Small mammals like mice and woodchucks supplement meat-shaking with fat-baking. After a few days in the cold, they’ll sprout specialized shoulder pads of so-called brown adipose tissue, which, unlike ordinary white fat, is crisscrossed with blood vessels and nerves and thus can be stimulated and chemically burned to make heat.

Nor should we neglect that quintessentially mammalian trait, our hair, which, at the behest of tiny piloerector muscles at the base of each strand, can puff up to trap pockets of still air, one of the finest insulators known. Of course, we humans have lost our fur and are left out in the cold with nothing but goose bumps, driven to desperate acts like stealing the pelts or feathers of others, or sneaking into some cozy manhole when no one is around.


ewesa said...

ha! I especially like the part about bullying your neighbors. thank goodness for space heaters, they are much more comforatble than pipes in a manhole, believe me.

St. Jon said...

I've got two gals in my office... one is always cold, and the other is always too warm... so, battles over the temperature in the office often ensue

Space heaters and comments about, "why don't you dress more warmly?" come in handy

I work with all women, and I swear, I think they're going to be the death of me