Epidermis architecture and material properties of the skin of four snake species

Marie-Christin G. Klein, Stanislav N. Gorb


On the basis of structural and experimental data, it was previously demonstrated that the snake integument consists of a hard, robust, inflexible outer surface (Oberhäutchen and β-layer) and softer, flexible inner layers (α-layers). It is not clear whether this phenomenon is a general adaptation of snakes to limbless locomotion or only to specific conditions, such as habitat and locomotion. The aim of the present study was to compare the structure and material properties of the outer scale layers (OSLs) and inner scale layers (ISLs) of the exuvium epidermis in four snake species specialized to live in different habitats: Lampropeltis getula californiae (terrestrial), Epicrates cenchria cenchria (generalist), Morelia viridis (arboreal) and Gongylophis colubrinus (sand-burrowing). Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) of skin cross sections revealed a strong variation in the epidermis structure between species. The nanoindentation experiments clearly demonstrated a gradient of material properties along the epidermis in the integument of all the species studied. The presence of such a gradient is a possible adaptation to locomotion and wear minimization on natural substrates. In general, the difference in both the effective elastic modulus and hardness of the OSL and ISL between species was not large compared with the difference in epidermis thickness and architecture.

  • Received June 15, 2012.
  • Accepted July 24, 2012.
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