Sea otters use muscles to chemically generate heat without shivering



sea otter

Sea otters have an uncommon manner of staying heat

Randall Davis/USFW

The muscular tissues of sea otters have a far higher capability to show meals instantly into warmth than these of every other animal of an identical dimension. The findings clarify how these small animals keep heat in chilly waters.

Most marine mammals have giant our bodies insulated by a thick layer of blubber to assist them retain warmth. Sea otters are comparatively small and often weigh between 14 and 45 kilograms, with solely the air trapped of their fur for insulation.

They’ve the densest fur of any mammal, however this isn’t sufficient to maintain them heat, so that they must burn numerous vitality. Their metabolic price is round 3 times increased than regular for a mammal of their dimension, which makes it the very best of any mammal that weighs greater than a kilogram.

“We knew these guys had this excessive metabolic price, however we weren’t actually positive the place this vitality was coming from,” says Traver Wright at Texas A&M College in School Station. So he and his crew studied tiny items of dwelling muscle tissue from each northern sea otters (Enhydra lutris kenyoni) and southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis). It wasn’t essential to kill animals to acquire the specimens – as an example, some samples got here from rescued animals that had been present process surgical procedure to deal with accidents.

Muscle tissue generate warmth once they transfer and lots of animals shiver once they get chilly, however fixed shivering isn’t an important technique for a creature that lives and hunts in chilly waters. As an alternative, the mitochondria contained in the otters’ muscle cells produce warmth instantly.


All mitochondria use the vitality derived from “burning” meals to pump out protons, making a proton gradient. Usually, when protons circulation again into mitochondria throughout this course of, this potential vitality is used to make an energy-rich molecule referred to as adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This fuels processes that require vitality, equivalent to muscle contractions.

In sea otters, nevertheless, protons can circulation again into mitochondria with out producing ATP, creating warmth with out the muscular tissues transferring. Another animals additionally use this trick to remain heat, however the researchers discovered that sea otters have a far higher capability to do that than virtually all different creatures.

“Their capability to generate warmth is absolutely at increased ranges than we’ve seen, aside from some very small mice,” says Wright.

The same course of occurs in brown fats, a type of fats that’s current in some animals, together with people. However sea otters have little fats of any type, says Wright, whereas their muscular tissues account for practically half of their physique mass. In otters that weigh greater than about 9 kilograms, their skeletal muscular tissues alone can generate sufficient warmth to heat your entire physique.

The draw back of this course of is the quantity of gasoline required. Sea otters spend as much as half their day feeding and eat as much as 1 / 4 of their physique mass in meals every day. “It’s metabolically pricey,” says Wright. “These guys must eat a number of meals.”

Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.abf4557

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