Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Invisible Polar Bears and Other Arctic Adaptations

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The last glacial period on earth began to fade around 11,000 years

ago. The kilometers-thick ice-sheets that covered much of the earth started to recede,

and the earth entered into the Holocene, the current geological epoch.

But the once mighty glaciers did not disappear entirely, and the extremes

of our earth - the north and south poles - are the remnants of the last ice age.

These frozen tundras easily reach temperatures as low as -40C, and sometimes dip far below that.

Darkness envelops them for entire months at a time. They are places that seem wholly

inhospitable to any living creature. Temperatures are so low that hypothermia can quickly set in,

and ice itself can form inside the body - its crystals shredding tissue, ripping cells apart.

But for millions of years, evolution has forged remarkable adaptations across the animal kingdom

to ward off the icy grip of death. Its the reason Arctic animals have specialized heat

generating tissue, and the reason polar bears are invisible in infrared vision. Its what has shaped

our circulatory system, and why so many traits appear in cold weather animals that appear nowhere

else in the evolutionary tree. When the ice starts to take hold, what hidden strategies, compounds,

and dynamic physiologies of animals that live in these frozen tundras allow them to survive?

Subzero temperatures are a problem for all living things,

because all living things are largely made up of water, and when water freezes,

it expands and becomes sharp - this is frostbite, a death sentence for any cells it forms inside.

Cells that make up vital organs also have optimum operating temperatures,

and when core body temperature falls, the heart, nervous system and other organs can't

work normally. This hypothermic state can lead to complete organ failure, and eventually to death.

And so to survive an extremely cold climate,

there are 2 things an animal can do: prevent heat from leaving the body, or create more.

The animal kingdom is made up of endotherms and ectotherms - the fancy words for warm-blooded,

and cold-blooded animals. Its a misconception that cold blooded animals dont create heat like

warm blooded animals - they do. They just cant retain it and regulate it like the endotherms can.

Endotherms - primarily birds and mammals - use metabolic heat to maintain a stable

internal temperature, often one warmer than their environment. Cells produce heat as they

burn up energy, in exothermic chemical reactions, and endotherms can use this to their advantage.

When it gets particularly cold outside, endotherms can increase metabolic heat production,

in whats called thermogenesis. One of these methods is something we are

all familiar with on a very cold day - shivering. Skeletal muscles tighten and

relax in rapid succession to produce extra heat and keep the body warmer.

But some animals, especially hibernating ones, have an extra heat generating power.

Using a specialized fat tissue, called brown fat, or brown adipose tissue,

animals can create heat without moving a muscle. This is called non-shivering thermogenesis.

Brown fat works very differently from white fat, which is the fat we are more familiar with.

White fat stores extra energy, and is what builds up in obesity. But brown fat breaks

down sugar and white fat to create heat - burning up calories instead of storing them.

Brown fat generates three hundred times more heat than any other tissue in the body. It is

loaded with much more mitochondria than white fat, which also act differently than most mitochondria.

Rather than creating ATP - the energy carrying molecule - like most mitochondria do,

these mitochondria are designed to turn fuel molecules directly into heat.

Small mammalian hibernators use brown fat more effectively than any other creature.

Before hibernation, small mammals undergo a large increase in brown fat - not to

get them through hibernation itself, but rather, to help them to get out of it.

Hibernation involves going into a state of decreased physiological activity,

usually paired with a reduced body temperature and metabolic rate. This decreased state of activity

is called hypothermic torpor. It enables animals to survive periods of reduced food availability,

like in harsh frozen winters. But when more favourable conditions arise, these animals need

to be able to raise their body temperature to return to the world in search of food.

And arousal from this state is no trivial task. It takes about one hour, and involves violent shaking

and muscle contractions, while brown fat works to burn off energy stores to rapidly warm the body.

But creating heat like this comes at a great cost, energetically speaking. As much as 75%

of the total energy expended during a torpor bout is used just for arousal. A huge amount

of calories needs to be consumed for any amount of thermogenesis. And this is why sometimes,

its better to not just create heat, but to keep it from escaping in the first place.

The temperature of water in the Arctic Ocean hovers around 1.8 C. It can be

at a below-freezing temperature due to its salt content. Since water conducts heat 25 times more

effectively than air, water this cold is capable of sapping away large amounts of body heat. But

what should be an inhospitable place for mammals is instead full of them. And surprisingly, marine

mammals have no special increased heat generating mechanisms, no increased metabolism to keep them

warm. Instead, they have an adaptation found nowhere else in the animal kingdom - blubber.

Blubber is a specialized layer of fat that lives under the skin,

and is anatomically and biochemically adapted to be an efficient thermal insulator.

Like other adipose tissue, blubber is composed of numerous fat cells called adipocytes, which are

filled with lipids - aka fat. Blubber can be up to 93% lipid with very little water content, and

because lipids have a low thermal conductivity, it does not transfer heat as well as other tissues

like muscle or skin. This makes it an excellent insulator. Blubber covers the entire body of

animals such as seals, whales, and walrusesexcept for their fins, flippers, and flukes.

Animals with the thickest blubber, like right whales, can have blubber as much as 50cm thick.

Other animals, like polar bears,

have up to 11cm of fat surrounding them to help keep them warm in the water.

But when on land, a different adaptation exists to keep them warm - their heavy fur coat.

Close to their body is fluffy white fur, which traps dry, warm air next to the skin. And all

around that is their outer coat, which is made up of hollow, transparent hair called guard hairs.

And, because of these hairs, polar bears are almost completely invisible in infrared vision.

Infrared radiation is a part of the electromagnetic spectrum that we cant see

but can feel as heat. Warm bodies emit this radiation, which is what infrared cameras

can pick up on. Polar bear guard hairs absorb this radiation more effectively than almost

any animal, hanging on to the warmth rather than letting it be lost to the cold environment.

And because nearly all of the infrared radiation is absorbed, it wont show up on infrared cameras.

This makes aerial surveys and population counts challenging for researchers - their white color

camouflages them, and only their nose, eyes, and breath appear in the infrared spectrum.

A polar bears specialized fur is a very effective way to trap heat against the body,

but some animals arent lucky enough to have such an effective coat - most notably,

us. This is why a more hidden adaptation courses through the body of many endotherms .

The body's surface is the main site for heat exchange with

the environment - especially in those of us with no fur.

As warm blood flows to the outside of our body, toward the skin,

heat radiates away and is lost. And so, when the temperature outside plummets, the flow of

blood to the skin has to be controlled to keep the bodys core temperature at a safe level.

And while hidden beneath the surface, you have probably felt this effect. Once the body senses

cold, it constricts the thin web of capillaries in your extremities, starting with your fingers

and toes, and then moving farther up your arms and legs. This shrinking of the blood vessels

is called vasoconstriction, and its goal is to keep warm blood around the vital organs,

keeping them safe, even if it means risking frostbite in the extremities.

Many endotherms have this vasoconstriction ability for when the weather gets cold. But to keep their

extremities from being damaged, some animals have countercurrent heat exchange systems that allow

heat to be transferred from blood vessels containing warmer blood to those containing cooler

blood. Animals like wolves use this extensively in their legs and feet to keep them from freezing.

Blood leaves the wolves core at a warm body temperature and travels towards the feet,

while the blood returning from the feet has been cooled down from the environment.

As the cold blood runs up the leg from the foot and passes by the warm arteries,

it picks up most of the heat from the arteries from conduction. And conversely,

the blood flowing down from the body is cooled. This means that less heat will be lost

from the feet due to the now reduced temperature difference between the blood and the surroundings,

and that the blood moving back into the body's core has been warmed, helping maintain the bodys

core heat. Humans can do this to some extent, but not as well as many of the arctic endotherms.

Instead some people - particularly people whose ancestors lived in arctic

climates - take the vasoconstriction of the blood vessels one step further.

After some time in the cold, certain peoples constricted capillaries will suddenly

dilate - sending a rush of warm blood into the now freezing extremities, briefly warming them, before

constricting again. This prevents the extremities from being severely damaged by frostbite,

while still ensuring that the vital organs stay warm. The cycle of constriction and dilation is

called the Hunters response. People who live in cold environments, or people whose ancestors did,

have this automatic response. Inuit hunters, for example, can raise the

temperature of the skin in their hands from almost freezing to 10C in a few minutes.

Cold tolerant animals, like those found in the polar extremes of the earth,

are at constant war with freezing temperatures. Behavioral strategies, physiological processes,

and anatomical features all work together to keep the cold out of their bodies.

But what if avoiding freezing wasnt the only option? What instead, you just let the ice take

you over? For us, and most animals, this would mean certain death. But for some strange animals,

giving into the cold entirely is not only possible, but advantageous. Some animals even

take it so far as to freeze completely solid. Their heart stops, their brain activity ceases,

and yet - come spring, they completely recover from what should have been certain death. In the

next video, well explore how scientists have realized that preventing freeze is not the only

way to survive the cold, and see how we humans are trying to harness these powers for ourselves.

Behind every piece of research, every scientific story - there is a human one. Much of the ecology

and physiology explored in this video was only made possible by the people in the field, in these

icy landscapes taking measurements or observing animal behavior. These human stories fascinate

me as much as the science ones, and this is why we decided to start a podcast to explore just this.

Modulus - hosted by me, and Brian from Real Engineering, is a podcast about the people

behind the scientific stories we tell you here on YouTube. We will talk to the scientists who

are on the cutting edge of research, and the people who are affected by the topics we discuss.

From people who have spent months as saturation divers at the bottom of the ocean,

to the people pioneering liquid battery technology, to the people affected by the decision

to introduce genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida, this podcast will show the real

life people behind these topics, and the real life impact these scientific stories have on the world.

The first episode of Modulus launched today on Nebula, the streaming platform made by me

and several other educational YouTube content creators. It's the place to watch and listen

to our videos and podcasts ad free, along with original content that is not available anywhere

else like the Real Engineerings the Logistics of D-day, or Tom Scotts gameshow Money.

We can take more risks on Nebula, where we dont have to worry about the YouTube algorithm.

There is so much original content there, with more being added all the time.

And to make it even better, Nebula has partnered with CuriosityStream,

the streaming platform with thousands of high budget, high quality documentaries. There are

loads of documentaries about ecology and animal behavior, like this one called Polar Bears. Its

a beautiful overview of polar bear biology, with stunning cinematography of the Arctic landscapes.

If youve hesitated before to get CuriosityStream and never quite pulled the trigger- now is

definitely the time to do it. For a limited time, CuriosityStream is offering 41% off

their annual plans, making a yearly subscription just 11.79. Thats less than a dollar per month!

So by signing up at,

you will get a subscription to CuriostyStream and a subscription to Nebula, for just

$11.79 for the entire year. Signing up is also the best way to support this channel,

and all of your favorite educational content creators.

Thanks for watching, and if you would like to see more from me the links to

my instagram, twitter, and patreon are below.

The Description of Invisible Polar Bears and Other Arctic Adaptations