Thermal imaging, also known as thermography, captures infrared radiation and turns it into an image similar to standard photography, which does the same thing with light in the visible spectrum. Thermal imaging is an important tool for science because warmer objects emit more radiation, which translates on thermal images as brighter colors (the brightest possible value for a thermal image is pure white).

Thermal cameras are used in a wide variety of industrial and commercial settings in everything from parts manufacturing (to make sure things stay the proper temperature throughout the production run) to utility line repairs (faulty lines and switches show up hotter than they should). In the world of green, they are used by energy-efficiency professionals to detect leaks in building envelopes.

One of my favorite applications of the technology is thermal images of animals. I'm an armchair biologist and am fascinated by the mind-blowing morphological diversity created by evolution and natural selection. I am also a huge fan of biomimicry and know that there is an enormous amount that we can learn from the natural world to better inform how we design our own. Seeing how animals from different parts of the world manage their internal heat could offer some fascinating insights. At the very least, they're really cool to look at. Here are 14 really cool thermal images of animals.


Thermal image of ostrich

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ostriches are the largest bird in the world. They can weigh hundreds of pounds, stand more than nine feet tall, and can run 40 miles per hour for more than 30 minutes. Ostriches are native to Africa and can be found throughout much of the continent. They need to be able to both vent heat during the hot days while being able to preserve it during the cool nights. As the thermal images show, the giant bird throws a lot of heat off its legs and long neck. At night, when they settle down for sleep, their legs are tucked up underneath them, helping to preserve warmth. During the hot days, their feathers reflect heat away while running around helps circulate cooler air over their skin.


Thermal image of lion

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Lions are enormous predators found in Africa and Asia that sit firmly atop their local food web (if you factor out humans). They are considered a vulnerable species and have seen their numbers plummet over the years because of hunting and habitat loss. The estimated number of lions in Africa has fallen as much as 90 percent since the 1950s and has showed no signs of slowing over the last few decades. Conservation efforts have helped to carve out protected habitat for the King of the Beasts, but there's more work to do. (You can learn more about the effort at the Lion Conservation Fund.)

In its natural range, the lion has to deal with the hot days and cold nights of the savanna, and its thermal image shows how the thick mane of a male helps it retain warmth during the night while je pants off heat during the day.


Thermal image of vulture

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Vultures describe any of the number of actual species of large scavenger birds and are found throughout the world. They don't have a particularly sterling reputation but are actually a hugely important player in natural systems. India is currently suffering from a precipitous drop in the vulture population caused by the widespread use by farmers of a painkiller that soothes their cows but kills the scavenging birds. Without vultures to eat and break down dead animals, the bodies are left to slowly rot away where they fall or are piled up in huge mountains of stink that attract and support roving bands of vicious dogs.


Thermal image of dog

Photo: Wikimedia Commons



Thermal image of snake

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Snakes are cold-blooded for a reason — they barely show up in thermal imaging! (That's a human arm that's you're seeing in yellow.) While there are thousands of different kinds of snakes, they all share the trait of using external heat sources to regulate its internal temperature. Most exist in a spectrum between being cool and slow moving and warm and active and have evolved to efficiently retain any heat they pick up from the environment.

This image below shows the striking contrast between the warmth thrown off by a small mouse and that of the heat-stingy snake.

Thermal image of snake eating a mouse

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Thermal images of lizards

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

These lizards look like they're having a great time lounging out on some very warm rocks.


Thermal image of deer

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Deer are found throughout the world and are made up of a huge number of individual species. I suspect that the kind of deer seen in this thermal image lives in a temperate environment where it's valuable to be able to retain internal body warmth. Though it's positively glowing around its mouth and eyes, the dark colors found on its body shows how well its fur retains heat.


Thermal image of tarantula

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Tarantulas have a unique circulatory system that uses a blood-like liquid called hemolymph to transport oxygen throughout its body. This tarantula's morphology vents it heat almost entirely on the top of its abdomen.


Thermal image of cat

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Polar bear

Thermal image of polar bear

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Polar bears are masters of retaining body heat, as you can see in this thermal image. Millions of years of evolving in an arctic environment have perfect honed their ability to hold on to as much of their internally generated heat as possible. An interesting note about the polar bear is that their skin is actually black — their clear hollow hairs channel the suns rays onto their dark skin and reflect light away to give them their snowy white coloring.


Thermal image of bat

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The wings of these bats look like they're doing a damn good job keeping warm.


Thermal image of eagle

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

"What, are you talking to me?"

Ringtailed lemur

Thermal image of lemur

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ringtailed lemurs are endemic to Madagascar and their range has been pushed to forests on the southern end of the island. It can get warm in Madagascar and as this thermal image shows, lemurs have evolved the ability to throw a lot of unwanted heat off their large tails.

Want to read more about animals? Check out these posts here on MNN:

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Shea Gunther is a podcaster, writer, and entrepreneur living in Portland, Maine. He hosts the popular podcast "Marijuana Today Daily" and was a founder of Renewable Choice Energy, the country's leading provider of wind credits and Green Options. He plays a lot of ultimate frisbee and loves bad jokes.

Hot and wild! 14 thermal images of animals
Take a look at the thermographic infrared world of lions, and kitty cats, and bears.