Unravelling the structural variation of lizard osteoderms

Acta Biomater. 2022 Jul 1:146:306-316. doi: 10.1016/j.actbio.2022.05.004. Epub 2022 May 10.


Vertebrate skin is a remarkable organ that supports and protects the body. It consists of two layers, the epidermis and the underlying dermis. In some tetrapods, the dermis includes mineralised organs known as osteoderms (OD). Lizards, with over 7,000 species, show the greatest diversity in OD morphology and distribution, yet we barely understand what drives this diversity. This multiscale analysis of five species of lizards, whose lineages diverged ∼100-150 million years ago, compared the micro- and macrostructure, material properties, and bending rigidity of their ODs, and examined the underlying bones of the skull roof and jaw (including teeth when possible). Unsurprisingly, OD shape, taken alone, impacts bending rigidity, with the ODs of Corucia zebrata being most flexible and those of Timon lepidus being most rigid. Macroscopic variation is also reflected in microstructural diversity, with differences in tissue composition and arrangement. However, the properties of the core bony tissues, in both ODs and cranial bones, were found to be similar across taxa, although the hard, capping tissue on the ODs of Heloderma and Pseudopus had material properties similar to those of tooth enamel. The results offer evidence on the functional adaptations of cranial ODs, but questions remain regarding the factors driving their diversity. STATEMENT OF SIGNIFICANCE: Understanding nature has always been a significant source of inspiration for various areas of the physical and biological sciences. Here we unravelled a novel biomineralization, i.e. calcified tissue, OD, forming within the skin of lizards which show significant diversity across the group. A range of techniques were used to provide an insight into these exceptionally diverse natural structures, in an integrated, whole system fashion. Our results offer some suggestions into the functional and biomechanical adaptations of OD and their hierarchical structure. This knowledge can provide a potential source of inspiration for biomimetic and bioinspired designs, applicable to the manufacturing of light-weight, damage-tolerant and multifunctional materials for areas such as tissue engineering.

Keywords: Biomaterials; Biomechanics; Cranial bone; Material characterisation; Skull.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Epidermis
  • Lizards* / anatomy & histology
  • Skin / anatomy & histology
  • Skull
  • Tooth*