The carotid rete of the Thomson's gazelle cools its brain via counter-current heat exchange.


The Thomson’s gazelle lives in the East African savannah where is it exposed to high temperatures and predation by big cats, like the cheetah, lion, or leopard. These gazelles have been recorded to run at up to 43-50 miles per hour. Such a burst of speed may raise the metabolic rate, and thus heat production, by as much as 40 fold. Dissipating such heat loads is difficult, especially in arid environments where water is scarce and an animal needs to avoid losing too much through evaporative cooling.

The Strategy

The brain is a part of the body that is particularly sensitive to high temperature. Hence some ungulates, like the Thomson’s gazelle, use a counter-current heat exchanging structure known as the carotid rete to keep the brain cooler than the body.

The rete is a configuration of arteries and veins in a sinus at the base of the brain. Warm blood flowing to the brain travels from the carotid artery into a network of small arteries within the sinus, where it transfers some of its heat to cooler venous blood flowing the opposite direction as it returns from the nasal passages. The cooled arterial blood then continues toward the brain.

Image: Brian Scott /

Lion approaching a Thomsons gazelle.

Image: Wikimedia Commons /

Thomsons Gazelle

Male Thompson's gazelle. Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. Photo by Lee R. Berger

Image: Wikimedia Commons /

Thomsons Gazelle

Thomson's gazelle in flight from a cheetah attack. Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. Photo by Lee R. Berger

In a running Thomson’s gazelle, body temperature rises more than brain temperature such that a difference between brain and body temperature has been measured at 2.7° C. A predator like the cheetah must stop running when its body (and brain) temperature reaches 40.5° C, but the gazelle can keep running as its body temperature rises above 43° because its brain temperature still hasn’t exceeded 40.5°. The ability to keep a cool head can thus give the gazelle a survival edge in these predatory pursuits as he can outlast the cheetah who cannot maintain a cooler brain.

The Potential

Counter-current heat exchangers can be found in many organisms in many configurations. While such mechanisms are well known to engineers, a close look at the design of those used by nature may be useful in designing thermal control systems of human habitations.

Last Updated January 30, 2018