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Scientists finally know why elephants have wrinkly skin

Wisdom is not easily earned. To deserve the word, you’re generally 80+ years old with a whole arsenal of experience under your belt.

Or perhaps you’re one of the lucky youngsters deemed an ‘old soul’ (or maybe, like me, you use the phrase ‘lucky youngster’ at twenty-seven years old…?!)

I digress. The point: wisdom=age. Age=wrinkles (and kind eyes).

But this is not an article about wisdom or the elderly. This is about elephants. Or, more specifically, elephant skin. Which, as we all know, is endearingly wrinkly. Let’s agree that elephants are often characterised by three things: their trunks, big ears, and wrinkly skin. These three elements, combined with their slow and steady pace, often place them in the ‘wise’ category alongside your grandpa.

But why is their skin wrinkly? Have you ever even thought to question it? No, neither have I – but needless to say, it’s not because they are wise old animals.

There are a whole bunch of scientists out there who have puzzled over this for some time and come to some pretty cool conclusions.

After a number of studies using microscopy and computer modelling, scientists came to see that the skin is not just a tangle of random wrinkles, but actually an intricately designed canvas of cracks that allow elephants to stay cool and protect themselves from the environment and parasites.

Michael Milinkovitch, professor at the University of Geneva and a study lead, spoke with Inverse about the discovery.

“Indeed, their skin is of course wrinkled — that’s very visible — but if one has a much closer look, one realizes that the integument is also deeply sculpted by an intricate network of miniscule interconnected crevices,” he said.

Milinkovitch and his peers are most interested in the study of evolutionary and developmental mechanisms, and how they created diversity among life here on Earth. And evolution has everything to do with the cracked and useful skin of the African elephant, which differs greatly from the skin of Asian elephants.

This cracked skin is actually made up of fractures in the stratum corneum – a fancy word for the outermost layer of skin. These fractures, together with the connecting crevices, are what allow these elephants to protect themselves against the harsh African heat.

Milinkovitch continues: “This beautiful fine pattern of millions of channels is adaptive because it prevents shedding of applied mud and allows for the spreading and retention of five to 10 times more water [than at the skin’s immediate surface], allowing the animal to efficiently control its body temperature with evaporative cooling.”

This isn’t a competition, though. These African elephants have evolution to thank for their useful skin. Asian elephants haven’t developed these ridges and cracks simply because they don’t need them. They live in a cooler, wetter environment, making it possible for them to regulate their temperature without the use of deeply wrinkled skin.

Interestingly, Milinkovitch has found that there are similarities between the morphology of elephant skin and a human genetic disorder called Ichythyosis vulgaris. This disorder causes thick, dry scales to appear on the skin. Milinkovitch hopes that these studies will be the beginning of finding a link between the two.

However, ultimately, he says, “It’s a new, beautiful example of how physical processes are involved in the development of animal forms and shapes.”

Here’s a cool video explaining more:

Via Inverse

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