Snakes and other reptiles don’t get sunburns because they have a protective layer of scales covering their inner epidermis. A snake’s scales also help it retain moisture. A snake, in fact, is more likely to die from becoming overheated than it is to develop a sunburn. Luckily, snakes are smart enough to retreat to the shade before that can happen.
Generally speaking, animals that have a protective coating of scales, feathers, or fur don’t get a sunburn. As many farmers can attest, sunburn is the province of animals like domestic pigs or newly-shorn sheep that lack such protection. Dogs and cats that are either hairless or have light fur can also develop sunburns.
Housepets with dark or thick fur have more protection from the sun than do animals with thin or white coats. Similarly, long hair provides more protection from the sun than short hair does. Short hair lets UV rays reach the skin and cause sunburn. As with humans, light skin is more susceptible to sunburn than is dark skin. A white Sphynx cat is thus more likely to develop sunburn than a black Sphynx cat is.
Naturalists have also noted that elephants and rhinos can get sunburn, as can fish, amphibians, dolphins, and whales. In 2010, scientists writing for the “Proceedings of the Royal Society” noted that the blue whale, which has relatively light skin, seemed particularly susceptible to sunburns. They also reported that sunburns were becoming more common in marine mammals as a whole. The researchers also reported that blue whales could develop suntans, so they did have some defense.
While sperm whales actually spend more time on the surface than do blue whales, their darker skin gives them more protection from the sun. A sperm whale’s skin also contains a special protein that inhibits cellular damage caused by exposure to the sun’s UV rays.
Hammerhead sharks have the distinction of being one of the few fish that can develop a suntan. In the 1990s, a pair of scientists working at a shark nursery in Hawaii noticed that some of the pups or juvenile sharks were notably darker than the others. The scientists placed an opaque filter on the pectoral fins of the sharks and then put the sharks in a shallow pond with a lot of sun exposure. A few weeks later, the sharks’ skin, except for the covered parts, had darkened to almost black. The scientists speculated that suntanning protects hammerheads from sun exposure as they prowl coastal waters.
Just as blue whales and hammerheads can develop tans, terrestrial animals also have defense mechanisms to prevent damage caused by excessive exposure to the sun. Hippos secrete a pinkish-red oil, mostly around their ears and upper face, which are usually the only parts above the water when the animal is submerged. The oil absorbs UV rays and acts as a natural sunscreen. It may also have antibiotic properties.
Giraffes have two-toned tongues. The first eight or nine inches are black, while the remainder is a more normal pink. Giraffes use their tongues to gather the plants they eat, so those first eight or nine inches get a lot of exposure to the sun. The black color protects the giraffe’s tongue from sunburn.
Other animals use behavioral mechanisms to protect themselves from the sun. Rhinos and pigs, for example, both wallow in mud. Elephants will also use mud to protect their skin. They will also look for shady places and toss sand or dirt on their backs. They will protect their young by standing in a way to create protective shadows.
Some animals thus do indeed share humans’ susceptibility to sunburns. While some animals like snakes have natural defenses such as scales that protect them from the sun, other animals rely on behavior to save themselves from sunburns.