If temperatures in the teens (or the 50s for the warmer climates) make you grumble, be glad you’re not a mammal living in the Arctic or around Antarctica. These animals face much colder air temperatures of -40 to -76 degrees Fahrenheit. While humans bundle up with thick sweaters and jackets to get through the winter cold, mammals such as seals, penguins and polar bears stay warm with blubber, feathers and fur. How do these materials keep the arctic chill out?
The ability of a material to insulate depends on how easily it lets heat pass through—a property called thermal conductivity. Fat has a low conductivity, which means it slows heat getting out and helps keep heat in. Marine mammals such as whales and seals have a layer of blubber beneath their skin. The blubber insulates their body so they don’t lose body heat while swimming in icy waters.
Feather and fur also have low thermal conductivity and are good for keeping warm. They also trap air—another substance with low thermal conductivity—creating an insulating layer of air around the body. If the animal feels cold, goose bumps fluff up their feathers or fur, which traps more air to slow down heat loss. This is why down jackets are so cozy: Down traps air, and this air layer insulates us.
You can test these materials out for yourself: This experiment in Advances in Physiological Education uses bubble wrap and vegetable shortening to demonstrate how fat and air work as insulators. Show us how your experiment turned out. Tweet a photo and use the hashtag #ISpyPhysiology.
Maggie Kuo, PhD, is the former Communications and Social Media Coordinator for APS. Catch more of her writing in the Careers Section of Science Magazine.