Water exchange and permeability properties of the skin in three species of amphibious sea snakes (Laticauda spp.)

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Citations (Scopus)


Evolutionary transitions between different environmental media such as air and water pose special problems with respect to skin permeability because of the dramatic changes in the driving gradients and nature of water exchange processes. Also, during the transitional periods prior to complete adaptation to a new medium, the skin is exposed to two very different sets of environmental conditions. Here, we report new data for transepidermal evaporative water loss (TEWL) and cutaneous resistance to evaporative water loss (Rs) of sea snakes that are transitional in the sense of being amphibious and semi-terrestrial. We investigated three species of sea kraits (Elapidae: Laticaudinae) that are common to Orchid Island (Lanyu), Taiwan. Generally, Rs of all three species is lower than that characteristic of terrestrial/xeric species of snakes measured in other taxa. Within Laticauda, Rs is significantly greater (TEWL lower) in the more terrestrial species and lowest (TEWL highest) in the more aquatic species. Previously reported losses of water from snakes kept in seawater exhibit a reversed trend, with lower rates of loss in the more aquatic species. These data suggest selection for adaptive traits with respect to increasing exposure to the marine environment. Thus, a countergradient of traits is reflected in decreased TEWL in aerial environments and decreased net water efflux in marine environments, acting simultaneously in the three species. The pattern for TEWL correlates with ultrastructural evidence for increased lipogenesis in the stratum corneum of the more terrestrial species. The skin surfaces of all three species are hydrophobic. Species differences in this property possibly explain the pattern for water efflux when these snakes are in seawater, which remains to be investigated.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1921-1929
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 2009 Jun 15


  • Alpha keratin
  • Ecophysiology
  • Epidermis
  • Evaporative water loss
  • Lipid
  • Marine
  • Mesos layer
  • Permeability barrier
  • Sea snake
  • Seawater
  • 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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