The Weird & Wonderful Hydration Habits of Wildlife

Water
camel walking across the desert
From drinking tears to funneling rainwater using hygroscopic skin grooves to not drinking water at all, animals have devised some clever solutions for staying hydrated in the wild.

We share a dependence on water with all other life that cohabitates our planet. However, as French polymath Pierre Beaumarchais famously pointed out, what distinguishes humans from other animals is drinking when we are not thirsty. 

Humans have adopted some strange mechanisms in their quest for hydration––evinced by the proliferation of plastic water bottles littering the earth to the growing demand for functional waters––but we are not alone in devising unusual ways to source and hoard water to satisfy our insatiable thirst. 

Spurred by a now-viral YouTube video of a goat scaling the sheer vertical of a damn for a drink of water, we take a deeper look into the curiosities and complexities of how some animals drink water. 

Why did the goat scale the dam? 

The Alpine Ibex is a hefty mountain goat that lives in the Alps. These herbivores largely feed on grass, thickening up over the summer in order to survive the harsh alpine winter when food is scarce. Following the austerity of winter, the Ibex instinctively seeks replenishment for its mineral depletion, particularly calcium salts. 

While some, especially the much heavier males, scavenge for minerals by eating dirt from the ground, the more nimble and enterprising females search for mineral water drips by scaling almost completely vertical dam walls. 

The intense craving can be most likely attributed to the concrete and stone composition of the walls. The goats seem to be partial to a type of salt called ettringite, or Candlot salt, which can develop in concrete exposed to moisture. As it mixes with water seeping through the dam, the goats lap it up, all while balancing precariously on the sheer face of the gargantuan structure.  

honey bee on a yellow flower

Why did the bee drink the alligator’s tears?

To fulfill its appetite for mineralized water! Moths, butterflies, and bees have often been observed satiating their thirst by drinking the tears of other creatures––whether alligators, birds, cows, or even humans. 

The phenomenon is known as lachryphagy and while it’s been widely documented across tropical regions in Africa, Asia, Madagascar, and the Amazon, it’s not yet well understood. Scientists believe the insects are trying to balance out their diets: since these creatures feed mostly on nectar, they source the sodium and proteins they need for their metabolism and egg production from the salty tears. 

Why is the water bear the toughest creature on earth?

You’ve most likely never laid eyes on a tardigrade––or, a water bear, as they are rather affectionately known––unless you’ve got access to a microscope. These micro creatures are the epitome of perseverance, existing amid conditions that would quickly kill off other forms of life: radiation, extreme temperatures, extreme pressure, and most interestingly, dehydration. Tardigrades have survived all five mass extinctions and continue to thrive no matter what life throws at them. 

The water bears are usually found in moist environments, such as marine or freshwater sediments where they number up to 25,000 animals per liter. Their watery habits span from extremely hot water springs, the deep recesses of the sea, to nesting under layers meters thick of solid ice. Yet, they are remarkably resilient to death by dehydration, surviving up to 30 years without water. When a group of scientists thawed out some water bears that had been locked in a -4 degrees Fahrenheit freezer for 30 years, the creatures quickly resumed operations as normal, squirming and reproducing as soon as they rehydrated. Their incredible endurance can be attributed to their ability to drop their water content down to 1%, suspending their metabolism and entering a state called cryptobiosis. 

dolphin fins visible in the waves

What do sea mammals drink? 

Surely the playful antics of sea mammals such as dolphins, seals, and otters must make them thirsty. But when marooned amid an endless supply of salt water, where do they turn to for a refreshing drink? 

Most sea-dwelling animals actually eat their water: their bodies are able to metabolize the food in a way that draws out sufficient quantities of fresh water for their system. Their kidneys are also uniquely adapted to handling these higher concentrations of salt without becoming dehydrated and allow them to expel the excess salt through their urine. 

One study on sea lions in California found that by consuming a diet of fish, whose salt content is similar to the sea lion’s own blood, they could live without ever needing to drink fresh water. 

That’s not to say they wouldn’t prefer a sip from a freshwater fountain occasionally. Seals have been spotted eating snow when it’s available while manatees in Florida enjoy a drink straight from the water hose

Where does the tortoise hoard its water supply? 

We tend to think of emptying our bladder rather than storing water in it. However, many animals use it for that very purpose: both desert tortoises and the giant tortoises of the Galápagos Islands use their bladders as a 16-ounce water tank. During periods of drought, they are able to survive for one year by extracting water through their permeable bladder walls.
This liquid store can also be used as a defense mechanism when necessary although this leaves tortoises in a precarious hydration situation. 

When it does rain, the tortoise feasts on water-rich leafy greens, which provide it with the majority of its hydration, although they enjoy the occasional sip from a fresh puddle as well. 

What animal doesn’t drink any water at all? 

For the kangaroo rat, perfectly adapted to the arid conditions in the south-western deserts of the United States, drinking water could be fatal. Their hydration is sourced entirely from the water content in the seeds and beans that they eat. When they digest the food, they are able to retain all the water they need, minimizing their water expenditure through highly concentrated urine and an inability to sweat or pant. 

If these nocturnal rodents were to drink water directly, it would flood their body and flush out valuable nutrients, ironically leading to dehydration. 

How does a lizard find water in the Australian desert?

Camouflaged amid the hot scrubland and desert sands of central Australia, the thorny devil seldom comes across a watering hole. Instead, they rely on their scales, particularly the hygroscopic grooves of their skin which act like straws and funnel in water collected from morning dew into their mouths. It’s not their only trick for water replenishment: their feet are able to use capillary action to pull water upwards from the moist ground.

Do camels really store water in their humps? 

Despite what the stories would have us believe, camels don’t really store water in their humps.  They do, however, still use them for hydration. The camel’s hump is made of up to 80 pounds of fat. In desperate times, the camel can break down this fat into water and energy, fueling their legendary capacity for 100-mile journeys across the desert. When their hump fat has been depleted, the hump begins to droop. As a further measure to conserve fluids, camels do not sweat, even as temperatures in their native climates soar to 120°F. 

While their ability to function on scant water supply is impressive, that’s not to say that if they come across an oasis they would refuse a drink; in fact, the thirsty camel is capable of drinking 30 gallons of water in under 13 minutes. If water isn’t available, they are happy to munch on moisture-retaining desert plants for some relief from their thirst.  

We all need water

All life on our planet depends on a constant supply of water. While many of us are lucky enough to merely turn on the tap and fill up a glass, it’s amazing to consider how nature has endowed other animals with such a fascinating array of hydration hacks. 

By Natalia Kvitkova — Apr 14, 2021
The information contained in this article is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and should not be construed as health or nutritional advice.

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