Hugging trees feels good and can even be healthy for many animals, according to a study in the latest issue of
. There are several perks to being a tree hugger, but a surprising one is that trees help to regulate the hugger's body temperature. That's one reason why koalas are so often seen hugging trees.Why Koalas Sound Like Barry White
In fact, koalas have evolved bodies that are perfectly suited for the task. "Koalas have thinner fur in their bellies, which we suspect is to aid close contact with the tree trunk," senior author Michael Kearney told Discovery News. On hot days, he said that koalas "are aiming to cool the vital organs in their chests as well as their brains by losing heat through their chests and groin areas." Kearney is a zoologist at the University of Melbourne. He conducted the study with project leader Natalie Briscoe and four other researchers.
As part of the study, Briscoe, Kearney and their team examined how tree hugging affected koala body temperature. In this thermal image, purple tones are the coldest, with the lightest (yellow) colors indicating warmth. Orange tones show temperatures in between those two extremes. Trees gain heat from the koala body. As this happens, the koala cools off.Koalas Change Trees From Day to Night
Kearney explained that as a koala hugs, "The blood flowing through the body would continually replenish cooled blood near the parts of the koala in contact with the tree with warm blood from other parts of the body, with the ultimate effect of cooling the whole body down."
David Berkowitz, Wikimedia Commons
Briscoe, Kearney and colleagues shared that other animals, such as leopards, hug trees too. Leopards, other big wild tree cats and even tree-climbing house cats might look like they are just lounging on branches, but they too tend to hug trees, using the tree's cooler internal temps to cool down their bodies.PHOTOS: Snow Leopard Cub Makes its Debut
US Fish and Wildlife Service
Many bat species go to a lot of trouble to hug trees, having to hang on with their toenails. Some trees turn out to be better than others for body temperature regulation.The Amazing Link Between Bats and Dolphins
Kearney explained, "Trees with smooth bark seem preferable because they have what's called a 'high thermal conductivity,' which means heat flows faster into or out of the object. Also, larger trees with thicker trunks are cooler."
Group hug, anyone? Many species of bats, and particularly those that consume fruit, frequently hug trees en masse. In addition to regulating body temperature, trees can provide food and shelter. Kearney added, "It helps to stay attached to the tree on a windy day."Bizarre Sighting: Cane Toad Eating a Bat?
Cold-blooded animals, such as small reptiles, are more vulnerable to temperature extremes. By hugging trees, they help to control their body temps. Briscoe and her team are not sure if trees help to warm animals on cold days, but they haven't ruled out that possibility.Once 'Extinct' Pinocchio Lizard Pokes His Nose Out
This green tree monitor lizard appears to have found a perfect spot on a tree. Another green tree monitor lizard nearby benefits as well. The study found that Acacia trees were amongst the coolest during hot days. Acacias are therefore sought out by koalas and other animals.
Kok Leng Yeo
Both big and small primates (such as this tiny tarsier) seem to enjoy hugging trees, gaining the body temperature regulation benefits. It's not entirely clear why trees are so good at keeping their cool.PHOTOS: Funniest-Faced Monkeys
"We don't fully understand the mechanism," Kearney said, "but suspect it has to do, in part, with cool ground water being drawn up by the tree as it transpires, and in part because of the tree's thermal inertia." "Thermal inertia" is the degree of slowness with which the temperature of a body approaches that of its surroundings.
Delphine Bruyere, Wikimedia Commons
One of the two young chimps shown here is hugging what's left of a tree. Deforestation harms countless species. The new findings suggest that animals, ranging from large primates to small invertebrates, could become overheated during hot days without the cooling effect of trees on their bodies.
Mr. TinDC, Flickr
Squirrels, as for big cats, use trees as the ultimate lounging pads. Squirrels, such as this one, could be hugging trees to cool their body temperature. The squirrels and other animals might not consciously know this. To them, it likely just feels good.Innovations Inspired by Animals
The blood diet of vampire bats has reduced their ability to detect bitter and otherwise yucky tasting flavors, according to a new study that could help explain the unusual cravings of these flying mammals.
The study, published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, puts vampire bats on the growing list of animals with unusual senses of taste. That list includes marine mammals such as dolphins, which swallow their food whole and so don’t spend a lot of time savoring flavor.
Vampire bats aren't foodies either, unless that term includes raw blood cravers.
"Vampire bats are the only mammals that feed exclusively on blood," authors Wei Hong and Huabin Zhao of Wuhan University said. They explained "the extreme narrowness" of the bat's diet might have turned the bats into "poor tasters."
For the study, the researchers looked at taste receptor genes in all three species of vampire bats, as well as in 11 other types of bats. They also examined prior behavioral tests on vampire bats, which essentially determined whether or not the bats turned their nose up on certain flavors or liked them.
Vampire bats showed indifference to sweet flavors, so we now know they don't have a sweet tooth. These bats also had trouble detecting bitter, salty and sour tastes. That's significant, the researchers believe.
"Mammals typically have five primary taste modalities dedicated to the evaluation of diets, of which the bitter taste serves as an important natural defense against the ingestion of poisonous foods and is thus believed to be indispensable in animals," they wrote.
So much for that theory about being indispensable, since vampire bats have lost much of their ability to taste bitter flavors.
Hong and Zhao say that vampire bats find their food, not by taste, but by using a combination of smell, echolocation and heat detection. All of these allow them to "find their prey and locate the skin with rich capillaries."
It remains a mystery as to when and how vampire bats first got on their unusual all-blood diet. If the ancestors of the bats ate other things, then these animals might have once possessed a better ability to taste multiple flavors. That ability then could have been lost over time as the bats sipped more blood.
On the other hand, maybe vampire bats have almost always been this way. Researchers hope to solve the mystery as they’re trying to unravel the evolution of bitter taste detection in animals.
Just this week, at the 2014 Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting & Food Expo in New Orleans, food scientists announced that they plan to block, mask and/or distract from bitter tastes in human foods to make them more palatable to consumers. Coffee without bitterness appears to be catching on, for example.
Some people, in particular, are genetically more sensitive to bitter tastes — just the opposite of vampire bats in terms of food tasting ability.
Photo: A vampire bat. Credit: Getty Images