Animals at the extremes: the desert environment
Animals at the extremes: the desert environment

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2.2 How animals interact with the environment is affected by their body size

Willmer et al. (2000) classify desert animals in terms of the range of body sizes and the rate of evaporation (Figure 8).

Figure 8
Willmer, P., Stone, G. and Johnston, I. (2000) Environmental Physiology of Animals. Blackwell Science Limited ©
Willmer, P., Stone, G. and Johnston, I. (2000) Environmental Physiology of Animals. Blackwell Science Limited
Figure 8 Classification of desert animals based on body size and rate of evaporation

The logic of this classification can be appreciated by the following exercise. If you represent a small animal by a cube, and then make a larger scale model of it twice natural size, the linear dimensions of the larger animal would all be twice as large (Figure 9).

Figure 9
Figure 9 The linear dimensions, surface areas and volumes of three different-sized cubes are compared here to show how surface area: volume ratio decreases as the linear dimensions increase

However, the surface area of the model would not be increased by a factor of 2, nor would the volume, as can be seen by comparing Figure 9a and b. If the linear dimensions double; the surface area increases by a factor of 4 (22) and the volume by a factor of 8 (23). So the ratio of surface area to volume is lower in a large animal than a smaller one. Since heat is transferred at the surface, a small animal has greater potential for rapidly gaining and losing heat than a larger one because of its relatively large surface area. A smaller animal also has greater relative potential for evaporative water loss through its greater area of skin.

However, animals are not cube-shaped, and as you will learn in Section 2.5, certain desert species have features that can increase their surface area relative to their volume.

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