Thermal imaging: A closer look at London Zoo

Esther Walker
Wednesday 06 February 2008 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

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Do not adjust your screen: these lurid photographs are neither a misprint nor a preview of a contemporary art sale, but a line up of London Zoo's finest residents, as seen through the lens of a thermal-imaging camera.

The pictures were taken with a FLIR – that's "forward-looking infrared" – camera by altruistic amateur photographer Steve Lowe, who donated the snaps to the zoo. The keepers are using them for the enlightenment of their many young visitors.

As you might have guessed, the red areas of the animals are where heat is escaping. The blue areas are where surface heat is lowest – where the animal is conserving heat most efficiently using fur and feathers.

"These pictures are a fantastic educational resource," says London Zoo's zoological director, David Field. "The picture of the zebra, where the warmest parts on the skin are the black stripes, illustrates that black is a heat-conserving colour. But there is a more serious point about thermal heat images. They are very useful to us, and in veterinary science, because they can pinpoint infection – infected parts of the body tend to be hotter." And surprising biological quirks show up under the FLIR lens.

"Everyone makes fun of flamingos standing on one leg," says Field, "but you can see that it's a brilliant way of staying warm while staying upright." One to try at the bus-stop, then.

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