Scales, Feathers, and Hair

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Scales, Feathers, and Hair

The term " integument " is applied to any outer covering of an animal. Basically, it means the skin, although many scientists describe the exoskeleton of arthropods as an integument. An exoskeleton is a coating of hard protein type substances that entierly cover the outside of the animal. It provides a place for muscle attachment. The vertebrate skeleton is internal and muscles attach from the outside. This permits larger growth of the animal. Vertebrate animals have developed some very interesting excrescences, or projections of the skin, some of which are well-known and easily oberved by most people. They are scales, feathers, and hair. Although these characteristics are common among the most vertebrates, they are not all that common in the animal world as a whole.

The primary function of the excrescences is protection and insulation. Claws, hooves, and nails are other types of excrescences, but do not provide the animal with the complete body protection it gets from the three main body coverings. All, however, are made from special proteins. The primary protein used by vertebrates is keratin. It occurs as two forms: alpha (more pliable) and beta (more stiff) keratin. The way in which the keratin is constructed at the molecular level is what determines the structural differences among the various excrescences.


Scales occur on fishes and reptiles. Fish scales are made from more than just keratin. They are often derived from bone in the deeper layers of the skin (the middle section of tissues called the mesoderm), which are named the dermal layer. Some have a placoid scale that is formed from bone and covered with enamel, the same covering as the outer portion of a human tooth. Such scales are rough, spiny projections that give the surface of the fish a sandpaper-like feel.

A primitive type of scale is the ganoid scale . While this type of scale was common to fishes that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, today it is primarily found in a fish named the gar. Scales of this type are similar to placoid scales, but have an extra coating of a very strong substance called ganoin. It is even stronger than enamel and these gar-type scales are very common in the fossil record. They are believed to have provided a great deal of protection against rocks and abrasive surfaces that fishes may have rubbed against. It is also possible that they provided some protection against predators, since the scales make it very hard to bite through the skin of fishes. Many scientists believe that the ganoid scale is the precursor or original type scale that led to tooth evolution.

The ctenoid scale is found in most modern fishes and is much lighter than the placoid or ganoid scale. Growth rings are an interesting feature of a ctenoid scale. Under a microscope, small circular folds are apparent. There is some debate about the timing of the growth rings. Some researchers once believed they were annual rings, but this has been disproved. The growth rings appear with various timings among varieties of fishes and there are still many questions about what the growth rings may indicate about the life of fishes.

In both fishes and reptiles, the scales cover the entire body. The construction of reptile scales, however, is different. Both lizards and snakes have scales over their entire bodies. Many species are identified by the pattern the scales make on the head and body. Reptiles have evolved a unique layer in the skin from their aquatic ancestors. In order for reptiles to live free from water a waxy layer, the stratum corneum, evolved to keep the animal from drying out on land. These waxy layers lie between the layers that produce the keratin for the scales. The scales are overlapping layers of skin with an inner and outer coating. A unique adaptation is a basal hinge region from which the scales can be somewhat flexible and fold back without falling off.

The stratum corneum, or cornified layer, contains beta keratin and in some species both beta and alpha keratin. This provides strength to the scale, which enables reptiles to climb on rocks and slither along various surfaces such as gravel and sand. As the animal grows, every so often epidermis (the outer covering) is sloughed off during a process called shedding. A new epidermis forms and is, in turn, shed as the animal continues to grow.

There is a wide variety of scale structures among reptile groups, including turtles and crocodiles who are sometimes excluded by researchers as true reptiles. Colors are achieved by a wide variety of pigments that are incorporated into the scale or that lie in layers of the skin.


Feathers are interesting excrescences whose origins are not completely understood. It was once believed that only birds had feathers, but later research revealed a striking relationship between dinosaurs and birds. This debate has been recently reduced with the finding of new and important fossils in China. Scientists now see a much closer relationship, if not actual descent, between birds and dinosaurs. Dinosaur fossils discovered in China near the end of the twentieth century revealed a skeleton which is clearly that of a dinosaur but which has impressions of feathers all over the body. The most fascinating discoveries began in the mid 1990s and is ongoing. It is easy to observe the relationship between birds and dinosaurs and their contemporary reptile cousins by looking at a bird. A bird has scales over its legs and have many characters, including skull and skeleton, that are very reptilian. They are highly modified scales composed of beta keratin.

A feather is a scale in which a long center shaft, the rachis, is the dominant feature. On either side of the shaft, the keratin is divided into tiny barbs that, under a microscope, look like the close-knit leaves of a fern. The barbs have tiny hooks, or hamuli, on them, which help the barbs attach to one another and keep them close to each other. These interlocked barbs are called the vane of a feather.

There are three basic types of feathers. The contour feathers (tail and flight feathers) are long and used as an aerodynamic device for flight. The plumules (down feathers) are for insulation to keep the bird warm. Their barbs or barbules (smaller versions of barbs) are not closely knit and so the plumules appear fluffy. The feather is built somewhat like a fern frond. There are primary barbs that come of a sturdy shaft. The smaller barbules emerge from the barbs and help hold the feather in shape by interlocking the barbs. This design is crucial for keeping the feather sturdy during flight. The hair feathers (filoplumes) are not as fluffy as the down, but are still used for insulation.

Bird feathers are composed of beta keratin. They occur in tracts along the bird's skin called pterylae . These tracts are easily seen on plucked chickens or turkeys used for food. It surprises many people to learn that the entire bird is not covered with feathers.


Hair is one of the most familiar excrescences, since humans are endowed with varying amounts of it. It is a characteristic of mammals. Hair or fur is made from beta keratin and grows from follicles located all over the epidermis. Its primary function is to provide insulation for the animal to keep it warm. However, there are several kinds of hair that provide sensory functions. Whiskers, or vibrissae, are located at places near a mammal's head. The roots of the vibrissae are connected to sensory nerves that are sensitive to movement and so help the animal to detect its environment.

The structure of hair is different from that of scales and feathers. A hair is basically a cone of keratin that is derived from keratinized cells in the dermis, or middle layers of skin. The hair is generated and formed in a pit in the skin called the follicle. The hair has an inner and outer sheath. Near the base of each hair attached to the follicle is a small muscle, called an erector pilli. When stimulated, this muscle contracts and pulls the hair straight up. In humans this condition is called goose bumps. They come as result of the tightening of the skin which helps prevent heat loss. It serves as a warning gesture in cats and dogs and other mammals.

As in most animals with scales and feathers, the loss of hair is cyclic. The heavy winter coats of many animals are shed in spring and replaced by lighter summer ones. Shedding may occur again in fall when a warmer coat is needed.

Whatever the excrescence, the variety and color of scales, feathers, and hair make watching animals a pleasant activity. The variety of patterns and structures continually provide a wonderful display of life on earth.

see also Keratin.

Brook Ellen Hall


Hildebrand, Milton. Analysis of Vertebrate Structure. New York: John Wiley, 1998.

Moyle, Peter, and Joseph Cech Jr. Fishes: An Introduction to Ichthyology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Sloan, Christopher. Feathered Dinosaurs. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1999.

Internet Resources

Encyclopedia Britannica. <>.

Hair: Animal Diversity Page. Museum of Zoology at the University of Michigan. <>.