Humans generally do not handle the cold that well. There are, of course, a few noteable exceptions. The Mongols, who are -to date- the only people to have conquered Russia in the winter, complained that spring made for worse conquering weather because the muddy ground was more difficult for their horses than the winter which stopped Hitler and Napoleon in their tracks.
But, if you’re not a member of Ghengis Khan’s army, you probably wouldn’t prefer to spend all your time in the harsh Russian winter. I, personally, would prefer that to be somewhere that is always 75 and sunny without humidity, of course. And when winter does finally roll around we begrudgingly bundle up in a heavy coat, scarf, and mittens.
So, considering how poorly prepared human bodies tend to be for cold weather, how do other animals, without the luxury of a coat and mittens, stay warm in cold weather. Or even worse- cold water?
How is it that killer whales live in icy water while I’m left avoiding the spray of the shower for at least the first 30 seconds after I turn it on? While the differences between a killer whale and me are numerous, the biggest difference in our ability to feel comfortable in cold water comes from the fact that a killer whale insulates himself in a layer of blubber and I do not.
Blubber is often referred to as a thick layer of fat on marine mammals, but it is so different from the fats on other kinds of mammals that many marine biologists do not consider it fat, but instead, it’s own type of tissue which connects skin and internal organs. Blubber has many important qualities. The most important among those is probably insulation. Blubber has more blood vessels than typical parts of the body and those blood vessels contract when the mammal is in cold water, reducing blood flow and the energy needed to heat the body. Blubber also helps marine mammals float and store extra energy.
Why don’t people have this special connective tissue, or something similar, to protect them from freezing showers, among other cold water dangers? People evolved to use tools, not blubber. We have the opportunity to put on layers of clothing. We invented water heaters to keep our water warm and housing structures to protect ourselves from the elements. All killer whales have is blubber to keep them warm. So, if you’re ever feeling jealous of killer whales for having built in insulation, just remember that at least you get to go home and take a hot shower, even if you do have to wait for the water to heat up first.
Abby Bainbridge is studying Journalism with a concentration in Public Relations, as a member IU’s class of 2021 and is a writing and content intern in the marketing department at WonderLab Museum of Science, Health, and Technology. She’s a proud Hufflepuff and spends a little too much time listening to podcasts. As a major Harry Potter nerd, she is super excited for WonderLab’s Night at the Museum: Fantastic Beasts and plans to brave the cold to attend.