Nocturnal vs Diurnal: What’s The Difference?

Written by Janet F. Murray
Updated: November 10, 2022
Image Credit A-Z-Animals.com
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Many animals exhibit different behaviors depending on whether it is day or night. These two periods are known as the diurnal and nocturnal cycles. There are several distinct ways in which they differ. But what exactly is the difference between these diurnal and nocturnal cycles? And how do these cycles apply to animals? We examine nocturnal vs. diurnal differences to understand fascinating animal behaviors better.

Comparing Nocturnal and Diurnal

Culpeo fox
Most fox species are nocturnal, but not all are.

iStock.com/tane-mahuta

NocturnalDiurnal
Most ActivityDuring the nightDuring the day
Behavior and habitsHunt, feed, and socialize during the nightHunt, feed, and socialize during the day
AdaptionsHighly developed hearing, smell, and eyesight
Higher body temperature
Lower body temperature for the heat of the day
Physical characteristicsThe eyes may be more prominent with extreme dilation of pupils.Smaller corneas to eye size.
VisionA reflective layer behind the retina
Light collecting lenses
Different properties of the eye as light is available during the day
CommunicationSounds
Calls
Smell
Touch
Reliant on visual cues but communicate in various ways.
AnimalsOwls
Leopards
Bats
Some Reptiles
Insects
Some monkeys
Squirrels
Some Fish
Elephants
Cows
Sheep
Dogs
Most Primates

Key Difference Between Nocturnal vs. Diurnal

The words “diurnal” and “nocturnal” refer to cycles occurring over a 24-hour day. However, the two terms have different origins. “Diurnal” originates from the Latin word “diurnus,” which means “daily” or “day.” In contrast, “nocturnal” comes from the Latin word “nocturnus,” which means “belonging to the night.”

As a result, diurnal refers to something that happens during the day, while nocturnal relates to something that occurs at night. At the same time, the two terms mainly describe animal behavior but can apply to other phenomena too.

These phenomena are the cycles of plants or the movements of celestial bodies. Regardless of reference, both terms are Latin derivatives referring to the time of day.

Nocturnal vs. Diurnal: Activity and Behavior

elephant
Elephants are diurnal mammals, having adapted to daytime temperatures and foraging while being large enough to ward off predators.

Pooja Prasanth/Shutterstock.com

The main difference between the diurnal and nocturnal cycles is the timing of activities. Diurnal activities typically occur during the day, while nocturnal activities occur at night. For example, many animals sleep during the day and are active at night. This behavior is because it is cooler at night, so they can save energy by being less active during the day.

However, not all animals follow this pattern. Some, like humans, are primarily active during the day and sleep at night. When we evolved, our ancestors found it easier to find food and avoid predators if they were active during the day.

Additionally, the distinct groups of animals tend to spend more time hunting and feeding during their preferred activity cycles.

Finally, diurnal and nocturnal animals tend to limit their social interactions within their preferred activity cycle. This behavior determines potential conflicts between individuals trying to complete different tasks.

Nocturnal vs. Diurnal: Temperature Adaptions

spotted owl
Owls have bigger eyes and prefer cooler temperatures, so they are primarily nocturnal.

kajornyot wildlife photography/Shutterstock.com

There are a few key adaptions that are associated with both the diurnal and nocturnal cycles. For example, diurnal and nocturnal animals tend to be most active when it is closest to their preferred temperature cycle. This tendency is because diurnal animals have lower body temperatures suited to the sun’s warmth.

In contrast, nocturnal animals’ body temperatures are adapted to cooler nights. This difference in activity patterns helps to maximize the efficiency of each animal’s metabolism. As a result, nocturnal and diurnal animals are each well-adapted to their respective lifestyles.

Nocturnal vs. Diurnal: Physical Characteristics and Senses

No two animals are exactly alike, and this is especially true when comparing nocturnal and diurnal creatures. While both groups have highly developed senses, they possess these for different reasons.

For example, nocturnal animals generally have better hearing and smell than their diurnal counterparts because these senses are more useful in the dark. In addition, nocturnal animals tend to have large, sensitive eyes that can collect as much light as possible.

In contrast, diurnal animals primarily have smaller eyes that allow them to handle the brighter light levels present during the day. Each type of animal has adapted to its environment to survive and thrive.

Nocturnal vs. Diurnal: Vision

Mexican Long-Nosed Bat
Bats are primarily nocturnal, allowing them to take advantage of cooler night temperatures for hunting.

Joelr31~commonswiki / public domain – License

We can generally classify animals as nocturnal or diurnal based on their pattern of activity. Several factors contribute to this dichotomy. One of the most important is vision. Nocturnal animals have few or no cone cells in their retina and a reflective layer behind the retina, which helps to reflect light.

In addition, their lens design is to collect light. This results in poor daytime vision but good night vision. Diurnal animals, on the other hand, have a good daytime vision but poor night vision. This attribute is due to the high density of cone cells in their retina, allowing them to see colors and detail in bright light.

Nocturnal vs. Diurnal: Communication

The differences between nocturnal and diurnal animals include their communication styles. Nocturnal animals communicate primarily through sounds and calls, while diurnal animals rely on visual cues.

However, both types of animals also communicate in various other ways. For example, diurnal animals may share information through body language or scent, while nocturnal animals may use touch or taste. Ultimately, the type of communication an animal uses depends on its needs and the environment in which it lives.

Nocturnal vs. Diurnal: Nocturnal and Diurnal Animals

Below are some examples of common nocturnal and diurnal animals:

Nocturnal Animals

Diurnal Animals

Although nocturnal and diurnal animals have dissimilar habits, there is some overlap. Many species are active both night and day, depending on the situation. For example, many birds are diurnal but may also be busy at dawn and dusk.

Similarly, many rodents are nocturnal but may also come out to forage during the day if there is little predation risk. Whether an animal is nocturnal or diurnal depends on diverse factors, including its predators, prey, and the need to avoid the heat of the day. We trust you will better understand the distinct differences between nocturnal and diurnal and how these attributes impact animal behavioral patterns.

Find Out More

10 Animals That Stay Up All Night

AnimalSleeping Habit
Guinea PigsDiurnal
SnailsNocturnal
FoxesNocturnal
FrogsNocturnal
RabbitsDiurnal
Mountain LionsNocturnal
MiceNocturnal
ChipmunksDiurnal
CockroachNocturnal
KoalasNocturnal
SlothsNocturnal
SquirrelDiurnal
LionsNocturnal
TigersNocturnal
DogsDiurnal
GerbilsMetaturnal
Bed BugsNocturnal
Bearded DragonsDiurnal
Hermit CrabsNocturnal
Ball PythonNocturnal
GroundhogsCrepuscular
Sugar GlidersNocturnal
MothsNocturnal and Diurnal
Flying SquirrelNocturnal
Corn SnakeCrepuscular
BadgerNocturnal
ChinchillaCrepuscular
BatsMajority nocturnal
FerretsCrepuscular
HedgehogsNocturnal
OwlsCan be nocturnal, crepuscular, diurnal, cathemeral
Black BearsCrepuscular
LemursNocturnal, diurnal, cathermeral
AlligatorsNocturnal
ScorpionNocturnal
GeckosCan be nocturnal, crepuscular, diurnal, cathemeral
RaccoonsNocturnal
SpidersCan be nocturnal, diurnal, or crepuscular
SkunksNocturnal
RatsNocturnal
HamstersNocturnal
BobcatsCrepuscular
ArmadillosNocturnal
HawksDiurnal
AntsCan be diurnal, crepuscular, or nocturnal
MolesCrepuscular
GophersNocturnal and crepuscular
DeerCrepuscular
CricketsNocturnal
Leopard GeckosCrepuscular
MosquitosCan be nocturnal, diurnal, or crepuscular

Next Up:

Nocturnal vs Diurnal

A-Z-Animals.com
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About the Author

I'm a freelance writer with more than eight years of content creation experience. My content writing covers diverse genres, and I have a business degree. I am also the proud author of my memoir, My Sub-Lyme Life. This work details the effects of living with undiagnosed infections like rickettsia (like Lyme). By sharing this story, I wish to give others hope and courage in overcoming their life challenges. In my downtime, I value spending time with friends and family.

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