Snake skin as functional biological material – Abrasion properties

Published on July 1, 2015

The body surface of snakes is one of the most interesting biological surfaces with fascinating functions. Being limbless snakes use their entire body not only for locomotion, but also for catching prey, reproduction, camouflage.


This means that the body surface of snakes has to endure constant exposure to frictional forces which usually lead to abrasion. Snakes are masters of adaptation and, in order to survive over 150 Million years in a vast spectrum of ecosystems, have developed a great deal of optimizations for sliding locomotion. In order to grasp how snakes cope with the problem of abrasion and to see if there is a habitat specialization, a comparative analysis of four different snake species specialized to different habitats (Lampropeltis getula californiae (terrestrial), Epicrates cenchria cenchria (all-rounder), Morelia viridis (arboreal), and Gongylophis colubrinus (sand burrowing)) was conducted. Since little was known about abrasion properties of the snake skin, scanning electron microscopy, scratch tests and nanoindentation measurements were conducted to understand abrasion resistance of this biologal material.

Gorb Group | Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel, Germany

Stanislav Gorb is Professor for Functional Morphology and Biomechanics at the Zoological Institute at the Kiel University, Germany. His research interests include biological attachment, evolution of structure and functions, biotribology, biomimetics, and animal-plant interactions.

Marie Klein just finished her PhD with the title “Experimental analysis of structural adaptations of ventral scales in snakes for abrasion minimization” in the Functional Morphology and Biomechanics Group at the Kiel University, Germany. She is currently working in the media sector and is establishing herself as a scientific journalist.

Guido Westhoff is an expert on reptile ecology and behavior, especially concerning snakes. After his PhD he worked as a PostDoc for over six years at the University of Bonn, Germany. He is currently head of the Tropen Aquarium in Hagenbecks Tierpark in Hamburg, Germany.


Klein, M.-C., Deuschle, J., Gorb, S..: “Material properties of the skin of the Kenyan sand boa ‘Gongylophis colubrinus (Squamata, Boidae)’.” J. Comp. Physiol. 2010, A 196,659-668, DOI: 10.1007/s00359-010-0556-y.

Klein, M.-C., Gorb, S.: “Epidermis architecture and material properties of the skin of four snake species.” J. Royal. Soc. Interface 2012, 76,3140-3155, DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2012.0479.

Klein, M.-C., Gorb, S.: “Ultrastructure and wear patterns of the ventral epidermis of four snake species (Squamata, Serpentes).” Zoology 2014, 117,295-314, DOI: 10.1016/j.zool.2014.01.004. (pdf)

Klein, M.-C. Experimental analysis of structural adaptations of ventral scales in snake for abrasion minimization. 2013. Dissertation, University of Kiel.

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