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About "Ask A Scientist!"

On September 17th, 1998 the Ithaca Journal ran its first "Ask A Scientist!" article in which Professor Neil Ashcroft , who was then the director of CCMR, answered the question "What is Jupiter made of?" Since then, we have received over 1,000 questions from students and adults from all over the world. Select questions are answered weekly and published in the Ithaca Journal and on our web site. "Ask A Scientist!" reaches more than 21,000 Central New York residents through the Ithaca Journal and countless others around the world throught the "Ask a Scientist!" web site.

Across disciplines and across the state, from Nobel Prize winning scientist David Lee to notable science education advocate Bill Nye, researchers and scientists have been called on to respond to these questions. For more than seven years, kids - and a few adults - have been submitting their queries to find out the answer to life's everyday questions.

Previous Week's Question Published: 9 December, 2004 Next Week's Question
Animals with little hair covering can get sunburn
Can animals get a sunburn?

Animals can and do get sunburned. Sunburn is caused by ultraviolet (mainly UV-B) rays (in this case from the sun) damaging cells in exposed skin. Cell death occurs and fluid accumulates leading to blistering with subsequent peeling of the outermost layers of dead skin. To some extent, this process is protective because it removes the possibility of severely affected cells from multiplying and passing along damaged DNA. If such cells persist in the deeper layers of the skin, they can develop into various forms of skin cancer, often years later. Some of these are very dangerous.

Just as clothing and shade protect against sunburn in humans, the coats of animals such as dense hair and wool do the same. Animals with very little hair covering such as pigs and their relatives, hippopotamuses and warthogs are particularly at risk and they often coat themselves with mud to act as a sunscreen. Rhinoceroses use the same strategy and elephants give themselves dust-baths. Light-colored animals, newly shorn sheep and other animals that are clipped can suffer from sunburn and the parts of animals that normally lack hair cover can be sunburned. The problem can be worsened because animals may be exposed to certain substances from their feed, medications such as antibiotics, and spores of certain molds, that can photo-sensitize them, making them more likely to burn; extreme sunburn and sometimes large open skin wounds can result.

Chemical sunscreen lotions that contain PABA (paraaminobenzoic acid) work by absorbing UV-B, thereby reducing the amount that reaches the skin cells, and sunscreens are equally effective on animals that are at risk. If already sunburned, we obtain some relief with lotions containing extracts of the aloe plant and these also can ease discomfort in a sunburned pet. Prevention beats cure, so provide animals with adequate shade and they have enough good sense to avoid sunburn.