A key factor in every animal’s survival is finding enough water to keep their bodies strong & healthy.
For this reason, animals have many different strategies for finding & using water from the environment, and it’s a great way to gain insight into their behavior.
Most modern humans would have no clue where to find enough clean water in a survival situation… so how do animals do it?
A few key points to remember about wild animals and water:
- Animals have specialized senses that can smell & feel moisture with much greater sensitivity than humans.
- The amount of water animals need can be dramatically reduced by having efficient biology & eating a well-hydrated food source.
- Most animals are capable of drinking water that would make humans sick.
With these points in mind, it’s important to remember that different animals all have their own unique strengths, weaknesses & behavior traits that help us more accurately predict their survival.
So let’s take a closer look at how different types of animals find water and what these strategies tell us about our local wildlife!
Mammals Navigate To Water Sources
An important thing to remember about mammals is they are very intelligent creatures who acquire tremendous knowledge about their environment at a young age, including how to find water.
Following the tracks of mammals reveals they follow habitual patterns of movement around their territories that include regular trips to known water sources, especially during times of heat and dry conditions.
In cases like this, finding water is simply a matter of remembering the locations of ponds, streams & water sources they’ve visited before.
Drinking spots will be first learned from parents and then gradually over time through exploration and slowly adjusting territorial boundaries.
These drinking locations are important to animals like deer, coyotes & bears because their large bodies have much higher water needs than many smaller animals.
It’s also extremely common for mammals to navigate along the edges of creeks, ponds, and lakes where food tends to concentrate more readily.
In short – large & medium-sized mammals simply learn their landscape so well that they always know exactly where to find the closest water.
Water is just an everyday part of how these animals interact with their environment, so it’s never very far away.
It certainly makes things easier when you can freely drink from streams, rivers & ponds that would make our human stomachs sick.
Many mammals also have biological adaptations to help them get through droughts:
- In very dry climates, camels evolved specialized anatomy to store large volumes of water in their humps.
- Ungulate species like deer can tolerate salty and brackish water for drinking (study)
- Desert mammals tend to become more nocturnal and have large ears for releasing heat without sweating.
Small Mammals Get Their Water From Plants
One of the benefits of having a small body is that you simply don’t need very much water to stay at peak condition.
Most small mammals are capable of getting enough water from having a well-hydrated food source like moist vegetation.
This means that despite their much smaller territories, there is still plenty of water to be found for small mammals like squirrels, mice & voles.
These creatures are capable of surviving without any access to open standing water.
This includes having a diet plentiful in moist grasses covered in morning dew or rain.
In this way, small mammals also help to funnel water up through the food chain in dry climates whenever they are eaten by predators who are less efficient at harvesting dew.
Birds Can See Water From Above
Birds are very similar to large mammals because their survival depends on knowing the landscape with great accuracy, and adopting habitual patterns of movement to meet their daily needs.
Similar to how mammals learn and remember previously visited water sources, birds learn where to find water from their parents at an early age.
Birds also have the extra advantage of being able to fly up into the sky and look around for open water if needed.
Whenever birds migrate into a new area, they already have that high level perspective of what the land looks like from above.
Flying into a new place, birds can see the patterns of creeks, ponds, lakes & rivers, and will pre-emptively choose a location that has adequate access to water.
If a location doesn’t have enough water for a bird, they simply won’t stay there.
Similar to small mammals however, their small size also means birds have quite efficient biologies when it comes to using water.
Most birds will only need to drink once or twice a day, which can be easily planned into a daily commute to and from a nightly roosting location, or any source inside their daytime territories.
Reptiles Are Extremely Water Efficient
A fascinating fact about reptiles is their scaly bodies are perfectly designed for capturing dew and funneling it towards their mouths.
This means reptiles can collect condensation on their bodies directly from the night-time air, making it possible to survive many months without a single drop of rain.
Reptiles have extremely low needs for water.
Their cold-blooded metabolism enables them to go for long periods of time without any access to standing water, and they can also extract water from prey.
These are all great reasons why reptiles do so well in deserts.
More examples of how reptiles harvest water in the desert are detailed in this article on Passive Water Harvesting by Desert Plants and Animals and includes examples like:
- Licking water from stones
- Digging ditches to harvest rain by reptiles & birds
- Avoiding activity during the hottest times of day
- Snakes coiling up to collect water in the shallows between the loops
- Lots of other examples with insects, plants & amphibians
Amphibians Can Absorb Water Through Their Skin
For amphibians, water is life…
The entire life-cycle of animals like frogs & salamanders is so incredibly linked to water that a huge part of their water finding strategy comes down to only living in places that have moist conditions all year round.
If a location doesn’t have access to clean water in all four seasons, amphibians will simply die off in an area.
This is unfortunate for the ones who don’t make it, but in locations where water is plentiful, they are incredibly abundant and capable of using every last drop.
Even in places with a hot & dry summer that dries up perennial creeks & ponds, amphibians can survive by crawling under a wet log or rock and absorbing water directly through their skin.
This means amphibians can still survive for relatively long periods of time without any standing water.
Can Animals Smell Water?
The typical scientific notion is that water has no smell or taste, however, this is in a laboratory setting using distilled water and the human nose.
We have to remember that out in nature, water reacts with everything in ways that do have very noticeable smells.
Even the human nose can easily smell water when it’s mixed with sand or mud, plant material or various minerals from the landscape.
Most animals have much more sensitive smelling capabilities than humans, and can absolutely smell water nearby. (The main exception to this would be birds, most of which have basically no sense of smell).
The more important question is whether animals actually need to smell water in order to find it.
Studying how animals behave & interact with water makes it apparent that animals do not need to smell water in order to find it.
However, where smell likely does play a critical role is in helping animals decide whether a water source is safe to drink.
There may be times when an animal decides to avoid a particular water source because of chemical or biological contamination. (This is a much more important application of smell).
When it comes to finding water, it’s much more likely that animals are simply remembering where they found water before, or following other secondary signs of water like plants/animals.
What Are Secondary Signs Of Water?
Anyone who spends enough time outside eventually gains a sort of natural instinct whenever there’s water nearby.
It’s an accumulation of understanding about things like landscape topography, ecology, seasonal changes and key indicator plants, birds & animals that are particularly sensitive to dry conditions.
In my video on how to read the secrets of a forest, I demonstrated how easy it is to find water simply by looking for patterns in elevation & associations with particular trees & plants (even in the desert).
Some common examples of secondary water indicators include willows, cattails, red-winged blackbirds, sedges, marsh wrens, raccoons & random pockets of lush vegetation.
These are all in effect, indicator species of a water source that other birds & mammals can observe in order to find water more easily.
In some cases this may be quite intentionally driven by a need to find water, but very often it’s also just convenient that life tends to accumulate in these abundant wet locations for foraging & hunting.
How Do Animals Find Water In The Desert?
The question of how to find water is especially relevant for animals in the desert.
Since deserts go through extended dry periods, most animals depend on special adaptations to help their bodies function on less water, while also extracting water from every possible source.
During the driest times, water is slowly funnelled up through the food chain starting with the plants:
- Vegetation grows more lush, green & dense in places with the most water, causing small herbivores to accumulate & multiply in key locations of desert abundance.
- Larger animals are drawn to the abundance of prey species both as a food source and for the extra water they provide.
- Animals that depend on having fresh drinking water will become increasingly concentrated around oases and rivers. They will adjust their movement patterns and territorial boundaries to ensure access to water.
- There may be significant booms & busts of wildlife populations between the wet & dry seasons.
- Many animals will simply die when it gets too dry, but enough survive to repopulate when the water returns.
- Many animals become nocturnal in the desert to help manage their temperature and reduce water needs.
- Rabbits & foxes develop large ears to help control body temperature without using water.
- Some animals like camels have humps for storing large volumes of water.
It’s easy to look at a dry environment and wonder how anything can possibly survive.
But you can rest assured that if you see an animal in the desert, it MUST be getting water from somewhere, even if it’s just moisture in plants & other animals being consumed.
- Think about what type of animal are you studying?
- How much water does it actually need? (See above sections on mammals, birds, reptiles & amphibians)
- How do this animal’s methods for finding water differ from others?
Get skilled at studying landscape patterns to identify the wettest locations, and soon you’ll be able to track exactly how water is funneling through the food chain, helping your local wildlife survive.
Oh any by the way… I hope all this talk about water makes you feel grateful for your own access to fresh H2O!