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Surface Area-to-Volume Ratio

by Greg Crowther


Written for Biology 220 at the University of Washington, this song explains the relationship between body size and mass-specific metabolic rate. It references the formulas for the surface area and volume of a cube with sides of length L: 6L2 and L3, respectively. These formulas should be written out explicitly to avoid confusion. Also, the alliteration of “large” and “low” in the line “If you’re large, it’s low” reminds students to group these two adjectives together (a large body size implies a low surface area-to-volume ratio).


Surface area to volume ratio:
If you're small, it's high;
If you're large, it's low.

Animals aren’t cube-shaped, but let’s pretend.
Say L is the length of a side -- what then?
6L to the 2 over L to the 3 equals SA over V.
SA over V.


Animals’ internal metabolic activities can’t
Exceed what they exchange with the environment.
And so, as they get wide and tall,
Their metabolic rates must fall.
Metabolic rates must fall.


Other Files

MP3 (demo)

music video

sheet music (with melody play-back)

Lesson Plan

Songs like this one can be used during class meetings and/or in homework assignments. Either way, the song will be most impactful if students DO something with it, as opposed to just listening.

An initial, simple follow-up activity could be to answer the study questions below. A more extensive interaction with the song might entail (A) learning to sing it, using an audio file and/or sheet music as a guide, and/or (B) designing kinesthetic movements ("dance moves") to embody it. The latter activity could begin with students identifying the most important or most challenging content of the song, and deciding how to illustrate that particular content.

Study Questions

(1) What are some things whose exchange with the environment may be limited by the SA/V ratio?

(2) If we were to assume that an animal were spherical, rather than cube-shaped, would SA/V be similarly affected by body size?

(Answers may be found on the answers page.)