Snake lower jaw skin: Extension and recovery of a hyperextensible keratinized integument

Authors

  • Matthew Close,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Biological Sciences, Lehigh University, Williams Annex, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
    2. Biology Department, Radford University, Radford, Virginia
    • Correspondence to: Matthew Close, Biology Department, Radford University, Box 6931, Radford, VA 24142-6939.

      E-mail: mclose2@radford.edu

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  • David Cundall

    1. Department of Biological Sciences, Lehigh University, Williams Annex, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
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  • Conflicts of interest: None.

ABSTRACT

The skin of squamates consists of a keratinized epidermis divided into thick scale and thinner, folded interscale regions underlain by a dermis containing a complex array of fibrous connective tissues. We examined the skin of the lower jaw of watersnakes (Nerodia sipedon) to determine how skin morphology changes when highly stretched during ingestion of large prey. Video records of skin behavior in the lower jaws of watersnakes feeding on fish or anesthetized watersnakes being stretched on an Instron machine showed that most skin extension involves the interscale skin. The largest intermandibular separation recorded during feeding was 7.7× resting distance, but intermandibular separation reached 10× without tissue failure during mechanical testing. Histological and anatomical analyses of lower jaws fixed in resting, moderately or highly stretched conditions showed that stretching had little effect on scale regions of the epidermis. However, stretching flattened folds of interscale regions at both gross and cellular levels and imposed changes in epidermal cell shape. Stretching of the dermis is primarily limited to realignment of collagen and stretching of elastin in the deep dermis. The configuration of dermal elastin suggests a model for passive recovery of epidermal folding following release of tension. J. Exp. Zool. 321A: 78–97, 2014. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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