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5.03: Skin Structures Made of Keratin

Claws, Nails and Hoofs

Reptiles, birds and mammals all have nails or claws on the ends of their toes. They protect the end of the toe and may be used for grasping, grooming, digging or in defense. They are continually worn away and grow continuously from a growth layer at their base (see diagram 5.2).

Anatomy and physiology of animals Carnivors claw.jpg

Diagram 5.2 - A carnivore’s claw

Hoofs are found in sheep, cows, horses etc. otherwise known as ungulate mammals. These are animals that have lost toes in the process of evolution and walk on the “nails” of the remaining toes. The hoof is a cylinder of horny material that surrounds and protects the tip of the toe (see diagram 5.3).

Anatomy and physiology of animal Horses hoof.jpg

Diagram 5.3 - A horse’s hoof

Horns And Antlers

True horns are made of keratin and are found in sheep, goats and cattle. They are never branched and, once grown, are never shed. They consist of a core of bone arising in the dermis of the skin and are fused with the skull. The horn itself forms as a hollow cone-shaped sheath around the bone (see diagram 5.4).

Anatomy and physiology of animals A horn.jpg

Diagram 5.4 - A horn

The antlers of male deer have quite a different structure. They are not formed in the epidermis and do not consist of keratin but are entirely of bone. They are shed each year and are often branched, especially in older animals. When growing they are covered in skin called velvet that forms the bone. Later the velvet is shed to leave the bony antler. The velvet is often removed artificially to be sold in Asia as a traditional medicine (see diagram 5.5).

Anatomy and physiology of animals Deer antler.jpg

Diagram 5.5 - A deer antler

Other animals have projections on their heads that are not true horns either. The horns on the head of giraffes are made of bone covered with skin and hair, and the ‘horn’ of a rhinoceros is made of modified and fused hair-like structures.


Hair is also made of keratin and develops in the epidermis. It covers the body of most mammals where it acts as an insulator and helps to regulate the temperature of the body (see below). The colour in hairs is formed from the same pigment, melanin that colours the skin. Coat colour may help camouflage animals and sometimes acts to attract the opposite sex.

Anatomy and physiology of animals A hair.jpg

Diagram 5.6 - A hair

Hairs lie in a follicle and grow from a root that is well supplied with blood vessels. The hair itself consists of layers of dead keratin - containing cells and usually lies at a slant in the skin. A small bundle of smooth muscle fibres (the hair erector muscle) is attached to the side of each hair and when this contracts the hair stands on end. This increases the insulating power of the coat and is also used by some animals to make them seem larger when confronted by a foe or a competitor(see diagram 5.6).

The whiskers of cats and the spines of hedgehogs are examples of special types of hairs.


The lightness and stiffness of keratin is also a key to bird flight. In the form of feathers it provides the large airfoils necessary for flapping and gliding flight. In another form, the light fluffy down feathers,also made of keratin, are some of the best natural insulators known. This superior insulation is necessary to help maintain the high body temperatures of birds.

Anatomy and physiology of animals Contour feather.jpg

Diagram 5.7 - A Contour Feather

Countour feathers are large feathers that cover the body, wings and tail. They have an expanded vane that provides the smooth, continuous surface that is required for effective flight. This surface is formed by barbs that extend out from the central shaft. If you look carefully at a feather you can see that on either side of each barb are thousands of barbules that lock together by a complex system of hooks and notches. if this arrangement becomes disrupted, the bird uses its beak to draw the barbs and barbules together again in an action known as preening (see diagram 5.7).

Anatomy and physiology of animals Down feather.jpg

Diagram 5.8 - A Down Feather

Anatomy and physiology of animals Pin feather.jpg

Diagram 5.9 - A Pin Feather

Down feathers are the only feathers covering a chick and form the main insulation layer under the contour feathers of the adult. They have no shaft but consist of a spray of simple, slender branches (see diagram 5.8).

Pin feathers have a slender hair-like shaft often with a tiny tuft of barbs on the end. They are found between the other feathers and help tell a bird how its feathers are lying (see diagram 5.9).


  • Ruth Lawson (Otago Polytechnic; Dunedin, New Zealand)