Why elephants have cracks in their skin

Elephants' wrinkles aren't just about age. In fact, the observation that baby elephants don't have wrinkles ...

Posted: Oct 2, 2018 2:24 PM
Updated: Oct 2, 2018 2:24 PM

Elephants' wrinkles aren't just about age. In fact, the observation that baby elephants don't have wrinkles in their skin led researchers to wonder why and how these form.

What they discovered is that the skin "cracks" to improve their quality of life, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

Animals

Elephants

Life forms

Mammals

Researchers at the University of Geneva and the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics studied the skin surface of African bush elephants and realized that those wrinkles form an intricate network of tiny crevices.

This lattice pattern fractures and bends as the elephants grow, creating millions of channels across their skin. The result looks rather like the cracks that form in dried mud, in damaged asphalt, across the polar landscape of the Earth and Mars or even within natural formations like Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway or eastern California's Devils Postpile, the researchers said.

If that were true, it would imply that the cracks form because of skin shrinkage. The researchers used samples of elephant skin and ran simulations to figure out how the cracks formed, and they realized that new layers at the base layer of their skin allowed for bending at the surface. That bending created "microvalleys" on the top layer.

But how would micrometer cracks in their skin help elephants?

"It is very counterintuitive that cracking the skin could be beneficial," study author Michel Milinkovitch, professor at the University of Geneva's department of genetics and evolution, wrote in an email.

African elephants don't have sweat and sebum glands to keep their skin moist in their warm, dry environment. To cope with overheating, especially due to their size, elephants are known to bathe, spray water and wallow in mud. The mud helps them regulate their body temperature, avoid parasites and protect from solar radiation.

The mud, combined with the cracks in their skin, allows the elephants to retain five to 10 times more water than if their skin were a flat surface.

"This beautiful fine pattern of millions of channels is adaptive," Milinkovitch said. And as opposed to the scales of a crocodile's head, which the researchers have previously studied, the skin truly cracks rather than merely creating a folded pattern.

This realization also led the researchers to establish a connection to humans.

"This study potentially establishes a link between a human pathological condition and the skin of African elephants," Milinkovitch said. "Strikingly, we show strong similarities between the normal skin morphology of African elephants and that of humans affected by 'ichthyosis vulgaris,' a common genetic disorder affecting about 1 in 250 people that is known to impact shedding of the skin and cause dry, scaly skin."

If future studies confirm this link, it would be evidence of how an unfavorable mutation in humans is a helpful adaptation in elephants.

Going forward, Milinkovitch would like to have the chance to study another newborn elephant and follow its progress.

"We would like to follow the cracking on the skin of a baby African elephant to understand the dynamic of the process," he said. "Are the cracks appearing everywhere or do they appear in a specific place and then propagate? Does it take ... weeks or does it take six months? It's a new, beautiful example of how physical processes are involved in the development of animal forms and shapes."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 28770

Reported Deaths: 1092
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds224739
DeSoto144216
Madison124234
Jones109149
Neshoba97070
Lauderdale89479
Rankin86012
Forrest82942
Harrison79410
Scott75715
Copiah58016
Leake56519
Jackson55716
Holmes53641
Wayne52212
Lee51816
Oktibbeha51625
Washington5129
Yazoo4786
Leflore47449
Warren46317
Lowndes45912
Lincoln43734
Lamar4317
Grenada3965
Pike39312
Monroe37529
Lafayette3684
Attala35523
Newton3329
Sunflower3216
Covington3175
Bolivar29813
Panola2956
Adams28018
Simpson2713
Chickasaw26418
Tate2648
Marion26311
Pontotoc2616
Jasper2516
Noxubee2478
Pearl River24532
Clay24410
Winston2446
Claiborne23910
Marshall2123
Smith21111
Clarke20424
Coahoma1906
Union1819
Walthall1794
Kemper17614
Yalobusha1667
Lawrence1621
Carroll16111
Humphreys1309
Itawamba1308
Tippah12711
Webster12610
Calhoun1244
Montgomery1242
Hancock12313
Tallahatchie1153
Jefferson Davis1074
Prentiss1003
Greene968
Jefferson963
Wilkinson929
Tunica903
Amite842
George753
Tishomingo731
Choctaw724
Quitman690
Perry634
Alcorn601
Stone541
Franklin392
Benton270
Sharkey270
Issaquena81
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 41362

Reported Deaths: 983
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson4532143
Montgomery3875102
Mobile3797134
Tuscaloosa210739
Marshall162210
Lee124537
Shelby110923
Madison11047
Morgan10203
Walker87123
Franklin86314
Dallas8419
Elmore83614
Baldwin7359
Etowah64413
DeKalb6415
Butler60727
Chambers60027
Tallapoosa57269
Autauga55312
Unassigned50724
Russell5030
Lowndes45820
Lauderdale4576
Houston4464
Limestone4290
Cullman4114
Pike4075
Colbert3775
Bullock3649
Coffee3592
Barbour3331
Covington3327
St. Clair3192
Marengo29911
Hale29621
Escambia2936
Wilcox2848
Talladega2827
Calhoun2805
Sumter27912
Clarke2686
Dale2620
Jackson2522
Winston2373
Blount2181
Pickens2176
Chilton2152
Marion20613
Monroe2052
Choctaw19212
Randolph1889
Conecuh1866
Greene1788
Macon1778
Bibb1761
Perry1541
Henry1303
Crenshaw1243
Washington1027
Lawrence1000
Cherokee797
Lamar711
Geneva700
Fayette671
Clay612
Coosa571
Cleburne301
Out of AL00
Tupelo
Clear
77° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 73°
Feels Like: 78°
Columbus
Clear
75° wxIcon
Hi: 93° Lo: 72°
Feels Like: 75°
Oxford
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 72°
Starkville
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 72°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather