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12.04: Maintaining Water Balance

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  • Animals lose water through their skin and lungs, in the faeces and urine. These losses must be made up by water in food and drink and from the water that is a by-product of chemical reactions. If the animal does not manage to compensate for water loss the dissolved substances in the blood may become so concentrated they become lethal. To prevent this happening various mechanisms come into play as soon as the concentration of the blood increases. A part of the brain called the hypothalamus is in charge of these homeostatic processes. The most important is the feeling of thirst that is triggered by an increase in blood concentration. This stimulates an animal to find water and drink it.

    The kidneys are also involved in maintaining water balance as various hormones instruct them to produce more concentrated urine and so retain some of the water that would otherwise be lost (see later in this Chapter and Chapter 16).

    Desert Animals

    Coping with water loss is a particular problem for animals that live in dry conditions. Some, like the camel, have developed great tolerance for dehydration. For example, under some conditions, camels can withstand the loss of one third of their body mass as water. They can also survive wide daily changes in temperature. This means they do not have to use large quantities of water in sweat to cool the body by evaporation.

    Smaller animals are more able than large ones to avoid extremes of temperature or dry conditions by resting in sheltered more humid situations during the day and being active only at night.

    The kangaroo rat is able to survive without access to any drinking water at all because it does not sweat and produces extremely concentrated urine. Water from its food and from chemical processes is sufficient to supply all its requirements.


    • Ruth Lawson (Otago Polytechnic; Dunedin, New Zealand)