Get to know the hairy side of animals

In the animal kingdom, hair plays a vital role in the survival of each species. In fact, hair is one of the three defining characteristics of the mammal group — the other two being mammary glands and special ear bones.

The function of hair is varied, for example, a thick hair coat protects a mammal from bites and wounds as well as heat, cold and UV radiation. Hair also provides camouflage to many animals such as tigers whose black stripes actually break its shape in the jungle thus not defining its structure. Hair also has an important sensory function — a tiger has big whiskers on its face, and the movement in those whiskers gives a signal to the tiger that the prey in its mouth is alive or dead. If there is a movement, the tiger will keep strangulating until the whiskers stop moving. The other sensory whiskers on the face, specially on the eyes, give the tiger an idea whether, while in speed, it can cross a particular narrow space or not — the sense of touch extending beyond the surface of skin.

The hair also provides signals to other animals when they feel a threat. Animal hair also provides defensive functions in hedgehogs and porcupines as it comes in the shape of modified quills or spines.

In many animals, the colour of hair changes during the mating season. This colour change gives the impression of a healthy partner for prospective mates.

Clearly, hair has many important roles in each species, and it’s an interesting subject to explore. So the next time you see a new species, do try to understand its hairy side too!

(The writer is a

conservation biologist at

Tiger Watch, Ranthambore)

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