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10 Animals with Skin Super Powers
By Jennifer Viegas,
Discovery News, 20 May 2015.

Skin functions as a protective barrier against all sorts of threats, from germs to injuries, but new research is finding that this largest of all organs performs feats that few could have imagined.

1. An octopus can see with its skin

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Photo: Jeremy Selan/Wikimedia Commons

Scientists are only just beginning to explore some of the unexpected abilities of skin, such as its skill in some animals for detecting light changes. In short, for some animals like the octopus, skin can see, as reported in a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

"Octopus skin doesn't sense light in the same amount of detail as the animal does when it uses its eyes and brain," lead author Desmond Ramirez of the University of California at Santa Barbara said in a press release. "But it can sense an increase or change in light. Its skin is not detecting contrast and edge, but rather brightness."

The ability allows the California two-spot octopus, and probably other octopus species as well, to camouflage themselves in a flash after "seeing" the light around them with their skin. This can happen with zero input from the animal's central nervous system.


2. Eighty percent of a bullfrog’s oxygen intake comes from its skin and not its lungs

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The skin of bullfrogs is so permeable that it takes in 80 percent of the amphibian's oxygen. While frogs have lungs, they are rather basic in structure compared to those of mammals, like humans.

The downside for frogs is that permeability also leads to substantial moisture loss. Frogs therefore usually prefer moist environments with humid air.


3. The Iberian ribbed newt, like a James Bond car, has spikes that it can release out of its skin

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Photo: Peter Halasz/Wikimedia Commons

In the James Bond series of movies, Bond has been shown driving a car that can suddenly release attached spikes from its sides. The spikes can slash the tires of other vehicles and inflict extra damage. Iberian (or Spanish) ribbed newts have a somewhat similar defense system, Egon Heiss at the University of Vienna and his colleagues discovered.

Heiss found that when threatened, Iberian ribbed newts thrust out their rib bones so that the ribs slash through the skin of the newt and into the would-be predator. What's more, the bones are coated in toxin so that the victim gets a dangerous dose of that too with every puncture.

The ribs go through wart-like bumps on the newt's skin. Extra collagen seems to help the mini wounds heal so that the newt doesn't incur much of a cost after deploying its secret rib "weapons."

4. Thorny devils soak up moisture better than any paper towel

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Photo: Bäras/Wikimedia Commons

Skin on the thorny devil collects moisture in the dry and barren-looking habitats where this lizard lives. According to the organization Shark Bay, the skin has tiny channels between scales on the lizard's belly and legs that collect every bit of moisture from sources such as morning dew and water from damp sand.

The thorny devil's skin, with its sharp bumps, is also a big turn off for potential predators. Other animals regret touching this tiny lizard, and the skin would give many predators a colossal stomach ache. It's little wonder that horny devils often live 20 years or more.

5. Stripes on zebra skin confuse insects, promote cooling

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Photo: Rainbirder/Wikimedia Commons

Zebra stripes confuse humans as well as bugs, and for good reason. Tim Caro of the University of California at Davis told Discovery News that the stripes could mess with our minds, potentially saving a zebra from a human hunter or a potentially deadly parasitic insect.

Caro explained that "humans find moving striped objects difficult to target accurately on a computer screen, suggesting a possible motion dazzle confusion effect." It's hard to attack and/or shoot an animal if you can't even focus on it.

Caro also found that the stripes throw off the visual systems of biting flies that can terrorize zebras. The flies tend to show up in large numbers, sucking blood and spreading disease.

As for how the stripes ward off the pesky flies, Caro and his team said that "biting flies are attracted to hosts by odour, temperature, vision and movement that may act at different stages during host seeking, but vision is thought to be important in the landing response."

They added that flies are attracted to dark colours, but stripes seem to puzzle the buzzing insects, which have trouble landing.

6. Some suicide bomber-like termites have exteriors that can explode

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Photo: Noel Tawatao/Wikimedia Commons

Like a human suicide bomber, some termites blow themselves up to destroy both themselves and their perceived enemies.

Ecologist Mark Moffett told Discovery News that worker cylindricus ants can detonate a part of their body thanks to explodable exoskeletons (their version of skin) and other features, including a toxic yellow glue that can instantly kill enemies when it spews out.

The unusual method of defense allows the workers to protect their colonies at seemingly any cost.

Exoskeletons themselves are unusual, since they function like heavy armour, providing incredible protection during the ant's lifetime. It is as though the ant is turned inside out, with its skeleton on the outside in place of soft skin.


7. Hagfish can release slime out of their skin that can smother and suffocate predators

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Hagfish "look ghastly," according to Doug Fudge from the University of Guelph, Canada.

Matching their off-putting appearance, hagfish reputedly consume prey from the inside out and can release gallons of slime from their skin in less than a second.

Fudge explained, "The slime lodges in and clogs the gills of any fish that tries to eat a hagfish."


8. The African spiny mouse's thin skin can tear off, allowing it to escape

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Photo: Marcel Burkhard/Wikimedia Commons

Ashley Seifert of the University of Florida and colleagues determined that the skin of African spiny mice is so thin that it can rip off, allowing the mouse to make a quick getaway while the predator sits confused holding a piece of shredded skin. Healthy mice can then grow the skin back in a short period of time.

The researchers hope that future studies on the African spiny mouse could eventually lead to better treatments for skin regeneration in humans, such as after severe burns or scarring.


9. Sperm whale skin is over a foot thick

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Photo: Gabriel Barathieu/Wikimedia Commons

Sperm whale skin is remarkably thick, measuring over a foot in some places on the whale's body.

Thomas Beale, author of the book "The Natural History of the Sperm Whale," explained that aside from providing protection from injuries, the skin helps the whale to retain warmth while also promoting buoyancy.


10. Humans, like octopi, can see to a certain degree with their skin

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Photo: Zephyris/Wikimedia Commons

The skin of the octopus is not the only one that can see.

Brown University's Elena Oancea and her team found that human skin also has light receptors previously thought to exist only in eyes.

Human skin doesn't need a brain to be "smart," as it can detect threats and respond to them without relying on the person's central nervous system.

Humans and cephalopods like the octopus are not closely related, suggesting that the skin of other animals might also be able to detect light and/or control camouflage, as well as doing other things all on its own.


Top image: California two-spot octopus. Credit: Nathan Rupert/Flickr.

[Source: Discovery News. Edited. Top image and some links added.]

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