Ectothermic vs Endothermic – Cold Blooded vs Warm Blooded Animals

Cold Blooded vs Warm Blooded Animals (Endothermic vs Ectothermic)
The temperature of cold blooded or ectothermic animals varies with the environment, while warm blooded or endothermic animals maintain a relatively stable temperature.

The animal kingdom falls into two categories based on how species regulate their body temperature: ectothermic and endothermic. This distinction plays a crucial role in how different animals adapt, survive, and thrive in their environments. Let’s explore the fascinating differences between ectothermic (cold-blooded) and endothermic (warm-blooded) animals, shedding light on their definitions, evolutionary history, mechanisms, and the pros and cons of each thermal strategy.

  • The temperature of ectothermic or cold-blooded animals depends on their environment.
  • Most reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates are ectothermic.
  • Endothermic or warm-blooded animals regulate their body temperature using mechanical and metabolic processes (e.g., shivering, perspiration, exothermic chemical reactions).
  • All mammals and birds are endothermic, as are a few other vertebrates and some invertebrates.

Ectothermic Animals (Cold-Blooded)


Ectothermic animals or cold-blooded animals rely on external sources of heat to regulate their body temperature. Their internal physiological sources of heat are relatively minimal or insignificant in controlling their body temperature.

Word Origin

The term “ectothermic” comes from the Greek words “ecto” (meaning outside) and “thermic” (referring to heat). This directly relates to these animals’ reliance on external heat sources.


Common examples of ectothermic animals include reptiles like snakes and lizards, amphibians such as frogs and salamanders, fish, and most invertebrates. However, there are a few exceptions.


Ectothermic animals regulate their body temperature through behavioral adaptations. For instance, a lizard basks in the sun to warm up or seeks shade to cool down. They also adjust their activities based on the temperature; they are more active when it’s warm and become sluggish in colder conditions.

Evolutionary Appearance

Ectothermy is an ancient method of thermoregulation, dating back to the earliest multicellular organisms. It’s a primitive characteristic that offers survival advantages in certain environments and continues to this day.

Pros and Cons

There are both advantages and disadvantages to being ectothermic or cold-blooded:


  • Lower energy requirement as they don’t need to produce heat internally.
  • Can survive long periods without food.


  • Less active in cooler temperatures.
  • Limited geographical distribution, especially in colder regions.

Endothermic Animals (Warm-Blooded)


Endothermic animals or warm-blooded animals generate their own heat internally through metabolic processes to maintain a consistent body temperature, regardless of external conditions.

Word Origin

“Endothermic” comes from the Greek words “endo” (inside) and “thermic” (heat), indicating the internal generation of heat.


Examples include mammals like humans, cats, and whales, and birds such as eagles and penguins. All mammals and birds are warm-blooded.

While nearly all reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates are ectothermic, there are a few exceptions that are fully or partially endothermic:

  • Tuna: Certain species of tuna have a specialized blood vessel structure, known as a rete mirabile, which helps them conserve the heat generated by their muscles. This adaptation allows them to maintain a body temperature that is higher than the surrounding water.
  • Sharks (like the Great White Shark): Similar to tuna, some sharks have adaptations that enable them to retain metabolic heat, raising their body temperature above that of the surrounding water. This adaptation enhances their muscular efficiency and hunting prowess in cooler waters.
  • Pythons: After eating, pythons raise their body temperature through increased metabolic activity. This likely aids digestion, as higher temperatures increase the efficiency of their digestive enzymes.
  • Leatherback Sea Turtle: This turtle maintains a body temperature higher than that of the surrounding water through a combination of a high metabolic rate, insulating layers of fat, and a counter-current heat exchange system in its limbs.
  • Argentine Black and White Tegu: This lizard raises its internal temperature up to 10 °C above the ambient temperature during its reproductive season, aiding in mating, producing eggs, and incubating them.
  • Moths and Bees: Some species of moths and bees raise their muscle temperatures before flight through rapid muscle contractions (shivering thermogenesis). This endothermic-like mechanism permits flight in cooler temperatures.
  • Cicadas: Desert insects control their temperature using evaporative cooling, similar to how mammals cool themselves using perspiration. The cicadas release excess water through pores. Meanwhile, other cicadas raise their temperature by pulsing their abdomens.


Endothermic animals use metabolic processes to produce heat. For instance, shivering generates heat through muscle activity. They also have insulation, such as fur or feathers, to retain heat.

Evolutionary Appearance

Endothermy evolved independently in birds and mammals. It likely first appeared in the ancestors of these groups during the late Paleozoic or early Mesozoic era.

Pros and Cons

While being warm-blooded expands the habitat range of animals, it also comes with disadvantages:


  • Consistent and high levels of activity, even in cold environments.
  • Broader geographical range, including in cold climates.


  • Higher energy and food requirements.
  • More vulnerable to food scarcity.

Table Comparing Endothermic vs Ectothermic Animals

In summary, here’s a comparison of endothermic vs ectothermic animals:

AspectEctothermic Animals (Cold-Blooded)Endothermic Animals (Warm-Blooded)
DefinitionRely on external heat sourcesGenerate heat internally
ExamplesMost reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebratesMammals, birds, a few others
Temperature RangeVaries with environmentRelatively constant
Energy SourceExternal heat sourcesInternal metabolic processes
Metabolic RateLow, varies with temperatureHigh, relatively constant (usually 35 to 40 °C)
Survival LimitsLimited in cold environmentsThrives in a wider range of environments

In conclusion, the distinction between endothermic and ectothermic animals is a fundamental aspect of their biology, influencing their behavior, habitat, and overall survival strategies. While each method has its advantages and limitations, they both showcase the incredible adaptability and diversity of life on Earth.

Related Terms: Poikilothermic and Homeothermic

The terms “poikilothermic” and “homeothermic” closely relate to the concepts of ectothermy and endothermy, but they focus more on the stability of body temperature rather than the source of body heat.


Definition: Poikilothermic organisms have body temperatures that vary with the temperature of their environment. Unlike endothermic animals, which maintain a stable internal temperature, poikilotherms do not regulate their body temperature internally in a way that keeps it constant.

Word Origin: The term comes from Greek words: “poikilos,” meaning varied or changeable, and “therme,” meaning heat. Thus, it directly refers to the variable internal temperatures of these organisms.

Relation to Ectothermy: Most ectothermic animals are poikilothermic, as their body temperature fluctuates with external conditions. However, it’s important to note that being ectothermic (source of heat) and poikilothermic (stability of temperature) are related but distinct concepts. An ectothermic animal is usually poikilothermic, but the terms are not completely interchangeable.


Definition: Homeothermic organisms are capable of maintaining a constant and relatively stable internal body temperature regardless of external environmental conditions. This is a characteristic feature of endothermic animals.

Word Origin: The term is derived from the Greek “homoios,” meaning similar or constant, and “therme,” meaning heat. It emphasizes the constant internal temperature these organisms maintain.

Relation to Endothermy: Most endothermic animals are homeothermic since they generate heat internally and maintain a stable body temperature. For example, humans are both endothermic and homeothermic. However, similar to ectothermy and poikilothermy, the two terms describe different aspects: endothermy (source of heat) and homeothermy (stability of temperature).


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