Ultrastructural organization of avian stratum corneum lipids as the basis for facultative cutaneous waterproofing

J Morphol. 1996 Jan;227(1):1-13. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1097-4687(199601)227:1<1::AID-JMOR1>3.0.CO;2-F.


The ultrastructure of naked neck epidermis from the ostrich (Struthio camelus) and ventral apterium from watered, and water-deprived, Zebra finches (Taeniopygia [Poephila] guttata castanotis) is presented. The form and distribution of the fully differentiated products of the lipid-enriched multigranular bodies are compared in biopsies post-fixed with osmium tetroxide or ruthenium tetroxide. The fine structure of ostrich epidermis suggests it is a relatively poor barrier to cutaneous water loss (CWL). The fine structure from watered, and 16-hr water-deprived Zebra finches, considered in conjunction with measurements of CWL, confirms previous reports of "facultative waterproofing," and emphasizes the rapidity of tissue response to dehydration. The seemingly counterintuitive facts that one xerophilic avian species, the ostrich, lacks a "good barrier" to CWL, whereas another, the Zebra finch, is capable of forming a good barrier, but does not always express this capability, are discussed. An explanation of these data in comparison to mammals centers on the dual roles of the integument of homeotherms in thermoregulation and conserving body water. It is concluded that birds, whose homeothermic control depends so much on CWL, cannot possess a permanent "good barrier," as such would compromise the heat loss mechanism. Facultative waterproofing (also documented in lizards) protects the organism against sudden reductions in water availability. In birds, and probably in snakes and lizards, facultative waterproofing involves qualitative changes in epidermal cell differentiation. Possible control mechanisms are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Body Temperature Regulation / physiology
  • Epidermis / chemistry
  • Epidermis / physiology
  • Epidermis / ultrastructure*
  • Lipids / physiology*
  • Male
  • Mammals
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Reptiles
  • Tissue Fixation
  • Water Deprivation / physiology
  • Water Loss, Insensible / physiology*


  • Lipids