How Animals Deal with Downpours

Some zoo animals, like these monkeys, will seek shelter in human-made enclosures when a storm approaches. Click to enlarge this image. Getty Images
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Heavy rains can be a nuisance for many animals, even those that live in water, which is why they've found novel ways to cope.

With the rainy season now in full force across much of the United States, animals both in the wild and at zoos are coming up with some unique ways to cope.

How animals react can depend on three basic things: the species, the individual's personality and the animal's access to human-made shelter and goods.

Outside of humans, orangutans have come up with some of the primate world's best ways of dealing with rain. Orangutans live in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, where dampness is part of the landscape.

In the forest during storms, orangutans will make protective canopies and "hats" out of leaves, but in zoos, they have found a more attractive material.

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"Here in Seattle, rain is virtually an everyday occurrence," Gigi Allianic, spokesperson for Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, told Discovery News. "Our orangutans wrap burlap bags around themselves and often just sit out storms. Like many of our other animals, they also have the option to retreat to an enclosure."

Most terrestrial animals do seek shelter. In nature, that can happen in tree or log holes, under rocks or leaves, or underground. Smaller animals like squirrels and mice will huddle together in such shelters, attempting to stay warm.

Rain seems to annoy most species, however, even aquatic animals. During torrential downpours, animals such as frogs, turtles and fish may retreat to lower levels of lakes and ponds, with some seeking added shelter under things like fallen rocks or driftwood.

Numerous animals, however, often remain out in the open and try to tolerate the wet.

"Grizzly bears at our zoo will often do that, even though they can go into an enclosure," Allianic said, adding that bears are very good swimmers.

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Reptiles possess scaly skin composed of a protein called keratin. This allows reptile skin to have waterproof qualities while still remaining properly hydrated.

"Crocodiles are pretty good at dealing with inclement weather," Nick Hanna, assistant curator at Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, told Discovery News. "They remain calm and cool and never freak out, even during hard rains."

Some animals do lose their cool, but not necessarily because of rain.

"We've learned that, for certain animals, it's better and safer to leave them out instead of in," Hanna said. "When confined, ostriches tend to run into walls. African antelopes sometimes get so spooked that they will also run into walls."

These species, though, still have access to off exhibit areas and canopies to shield them from sun and rain.

In certain cases, how an animal reacts has more to do with its individual personality. Hanna and Allianic indicated that some primates and elephants fare better than others during rainstorms, particularly when thunder and lightning are involved.

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"More skittish individuals can get spooked, and they will tend to retreat indoors," Allianic explained. "Even big elephants and great apes can be like dogs and cats when it comes to reacting to thunder and lightning."

While animals can try to get away from such loud noises, some may invariably become soaking wet.

The good news is that furry animals, such as giant pandas, tigers, brown bears, kangaroos and more, have all evolved an ability to shake themselves dry in mere seconds.

Recently, Andrew Dickerson of the Georgia Institute of Technology alongside colleagues Zachary Mills and David Hu determined that this shaking is tuned to the perfect frequency for each species, in terms of its size and anatomy. Loose skin tissue turns out to serve an important role.

"By whipping around the body, it increases the speed of drops leaving the animal and the ensuing dryness relative to tight dermal tissue," Dickerson and his team explained.

The finding also helps to explain why everything else around the dog during a shakedown usually gets wet, while the dog ends up dry.