Postnatal ecdysis establishes the permeability barrier in snake skin: New insights into barrier lipid structures

M. C. Tu, H. B. Lillywhite*, J. G. Menon, G. K. Menon

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Citations (Scopus)


A competent barrier to transepidermal water loss (TEWL) is essential for terrestrial life. In various vertebrates, epidermal water barriers composed of lipids prevent excessive TEWL, which varies inversely with habitat aridity. Little is known, however, about the mechanisms and regulation of permeability relative to natal transition from the 'aqueous' environments of gestation to the 'aerial' environments of terrestrial neonates. We investigated newly hatched California king snakes Lampropeltis getula to test the hypothesis that the first ecdysis is important for establishing the barrier to TEWL. We found that skin resistance to TEWL increases twofold following the first postnatal ecdysis, corresponding with a roughly twofold increase in thickness and deposition of lamellar lipids in the mesos layer, the site of the skin permeability barrier in snakes. In addition, novel observations on lipid inclusions within the alpha layer of epidermis suggest that this layer has functional similarities with avian epidermis. It appears that emergence of the integument from embryonic fluids, and its subsequent pan-body replacement following contact with air, are essential for completion of barrier competence in the newborn. These conditions provide a potentially useful model for investigations on the mechanism of barrier formation. We also found that hatchling snakes are transiently endothermic, with skin temperatures elevated by approximately 0.6°C above ambient air temperature during the period of barrier formation. Behaviourally, hatchlings showed a higher tendency to seek humid microenvironments before the first ecdysis than after. The degree of water movement across the integument might explain the switch from reclusive to dispersive behaviours associated with postnatal ecdysis in snakes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3019-3030
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number19
Publication statusPublished - 2002 Oct
Externally publishedYes


  • Alpha keratin
  • Ecdysis
  • Endothermy
  • Epidermal differentiation
  • Evaporative water loss
  • Hatchling
  • Lampropeltis getula
  • Lipid
  • Mesos layer
  • Permeability barrier
  • Skin
  • Skin resistance
  • Snake

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science


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