It is no wonder that the sun’s UV light can harm humans when considering how thin-skinned, hairless, and squishy they are. Some have the misconception that it is only individuals who have light skin who get sunburns and can develop skin cancer. While having darker skin does provide a bit of a safeguard from ultraviolet light, those with dark skin still need to protect themselves. Humans use sunscreen, hats, and protective clothing to avoid that ultraviolet light and the sunburns that follow. Can animals get sunburned?
Scales, fur, and feathers provide some animals with the protective coverings that they need. In addition to shielding their bodies from ultraviolet light, these coverings help their body to retain moisture and keep them at a comfortable temperature.
Some animals, though, may have the problem of dealing with serious sunburns, depending on the density of their fur, its colors, and other factors. Sometimes the things that humans do to animals can cause them to be prone to sunburns. For example, hairless breeds of cats and dogs can get sunburned because of the way that humans have bred them. Or sheep that have been newly shorn can be prone to sunburn because their protective hair is being used to knit into sweaters. In these situations, animals have not developed the psychological or behavioral responses needed to ward off threats from the sun.
Some animals that have sparse hair and a lot of exposed skin have developed ways to create their own type of protective “clothing.” For example, elephants throw sand on their backs and pass this skill onto their children by throwing sand at them. The dust protects their skin. Pigs wallow in mud puddles. This keeps them cool and creates a physical barrier that protects their skin from the sun. Mud baths are also helpful for rhinoceroses when it comes to fending off damaging ultraviolet light. Burrowing into the ground or sitting under a nice shade tree during the hottest time of the day has helped other animals avoid sunburn.
Some mammals have unique built-in mechanisms that protect them from the sun. Hippos excrete a reddish antibiotic fluid that protects their eyes and ears. This fluid absorbs UV light and protects these particularly sensitive areas. Don’t be alarmed if you see a hippo crying what looks like tears of blood. They are just secreting their own sunscreen.
Giraffes spend a lot of time with their tongues out as they reach for leaves in the tallest trees. The first few inches of their tongues are black and the rest is pink. Biologists think that this black part protects their tongue from sunburn.
Some amphibians are at risk of sunburn. A study published in the Physiology & Biology journal in 2000 showed that tadpole populations were declining because of sunburn. Some amphibians, though, have built-in mechanisms that protect them from the sun. For example, zebrafish, shrimp, sea urchins, and sponges have been found to produce gadusol, which is a chemical that protects them against ultraviolet light.