Research, Connect, Protect



The fur of mammals in exposed environments; do crypsis and thermal needs necessarily conflict? The polar bear and marsupial koala compared

Terence J. Dawson • Koa N. Webster • Shane K. Maloney


The furs of mammals have varied and complex functions. Other than for thermoregulation, fur is involved in physical protection, sensory input, waterproofing and colouration, the latter being important for crypsis or camouflage. Some of these diverse functions potentially conflict. We have investigated how variation in cryptic colouration and thermal features may interact in the coats of mammals and influence potential heat inflows from solar radiation, much of which is outside the visible spectral range. The coats of the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) and the marsupial koala (Phascolarctus cinereus) have insulative similarities but, while they feature cryptic colouration, they are of contrasting colour, i.e. whitish and dark grey. The reflectance of solar radiation by coats was measured across the full solar spectrum using a spectroradiometer. The modulation of incident solar radiation and resultant heat flows in these coats were determined at a range of wind speeds by mounting them on a heat flux transducer/ temperature-controlled plate apparatus in a wind tunnel. A lamp with a spectral distribution of radiation similar to the solar spectrum was used as a proxy for the sun. Crypsis by colour matching was apparent within the visible spectrum
for the two species, U. maritimus being matched against snow and P. cinereus against Eucalyptus forest foliage. While reflectances across the full solar spectrum differed markedly, that of U. maritimus being 66 % as opposed to 10 % for P. cinereus, the heat influxes from solar radiation reaching the skin were similar. For both coats at low wind speed (1 m s-1), 19 % of incident solar radiation impacted as heat at the skin surface; at higher wind speed (10 m s-1) this decreased to approximately 10 %. Ursus maritimus and P. cinereus have high and comparable levels of fur insulation and although the patterns of reflectance and depths of penetrance of solar radiation differ for the coats, the considerable insulation limited the radiant heat reaching the skin. These data suggest that generally, if mammal coats have high insulation then heat flow from solar radiation into an animal is much restricted and the impact of coat colour is negligible. However, comparisons with published data from other species suggest that as fur insulation decreases, colour increasingly influences the heat inflow associated with solar radiation.