In explaining energy and work to an 8 year-old I said that all conversion of energy generates heat as a by-product. For example, cars generate heat in their engines and running generates heat in our bodies. Then the 8 year-old said, except for cold-blooded animals.

So my question is, do cold-blooded animals generate any heat in their conversion of stored energy (food, fat, etc) into motion? If they generate heat, why are they cold-blooded?

  • $\begingroup$ An easy way to convince the 8 year old is to catch a lizard sunning itself. I assure you it will be warm to the touch. $\endgroup$ – terdon Feb 6 '13 at 14:35

They do generate heat. They just do not SPEND energy specifically on heating their bodies by raising their metabolisms. This is a form of energy conservation. The metabolic rate they need to live is not nearly enough to heat their bodies.

An example of spending energy to heat the body is seen in humans shivering. Here muscle is activated not for its usual purpose, but to function as a furnace. "Warm-blooded" and "cold-blooded" is somewhat a misnomer. The correct way to think of it is...

Endotherm or ectotherm. Does the heat primarily come from within (endo) or from the surroundings (ecto). Endothermic animals include mammals. Most of their body heat is generated by their own metabolisms. Ectothermic animals include reptiles and insects. They absorb most of their body heat from the surroundings. This is not the same as saying they let their body temperature fluctuate with their surroundings, some avoid this by moving around to accomodate themselves.

Homeotherm or poikilotherm. Homeotherms want to maintain homeostasis for their body temperatures. They don't want it to change. Poikilotherms do not exhibit this behaviour, instead their body temperatures vary greatly with the environment.

We can have endotherm poikilotherms, such as squirrels, who let their body temperature drop while hibernating. Endotherm homeotherms, such as humans, where temperature is constant by means of complex thermoregulation. Ectotherm homeotherms, such as snakes (moving into shadow or into the sun to regulate temperature), and ectotherm poikilotherms, such as maggots.


As the others have said, animals and insects (and even plants) generate heat through metabolism and can regulate their temperature this way.

Just wanted to add a third point that mammals have developed brown fat, fat tissue which is dark with extra mitochondria which burn energy to generate heat. These are rich with uncoupling protein (a particular uncoupling protein called thermogenin) which passes protons through the mitochondrial membrane to generate heat rather than generate ATP.

Most of the heat generated by mammals is not from brown adipose tissue, but it is a particular adaptation to generate heat that endotherms have evolved. The brain alone is responsible for 16% of the heat generated by human bodies.


I'm fairly certain that you were right in your initial hunch that heat is almost always a byproduct of metabolism (which is never 100% efficient). The difference between endothermic ('warm-blooded') and ectothermic ('cold-blooded') organisms is just where the primary source of body temperature regulation comes from (either from metabolic reactions in endotherms or from the environment in ectotherms).

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    $\begingroup$ In other words, warm blooded animals have physiology to actively maintain their body at a certain temperature whilst cold blooded animals don't bother, just matching their environments temperature and using behavioural strategies to avoid dangerous temperatures. $\endgroup$ – Rory M Feb 5 '13 at 21:38

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