African spiny mice discovered to have armor-like bones beneath their skin

The mice were found to possess osteoderms, bone structures resembling armadillos, challenging our understanding of mammalian adaptations.
Kavita Verma
Spiny mice create boney plates
Spiny mice create boney plates under their tail skin called osteoderms, which come off when the animal is assaulted and allow them to flee.

Image by Edward Stanley 

Although mammals are known for having hair, one species of rodent has astonished scientists by having a distinctive characteristic that lies beneath their skin. African spiny mice, which were previously thought to lack any distinguishing characteristics, have now been discovered to have osteoderms, which are bone structures resembling those of armadillos

The discovery, reported in the journal iScience, provides fresh insight into the variety of mammalian adaptations. The discovery of osteoderms in the tails of African spiny mice was made by researchers by accident during normal CT scanning of museum exhibits for the openVertebrate program. 

Co-author Edward Stanley, head of the digital imaging lab at the Florida Museum of Natural History, initially mistook the dark appearance for a preservation fault but soon recognized the recognizable structures from his earlier lizard studies. The discovery of the osteoderms has added an interesting new perspective to the study of these rodents.

“My entire PhD was focused on osteoderm development in lizards. Once the specimen scans had been processed, the tail was very clearly covered in osteoderms.”

Unraveling the mysteries of spiny mice

The discovery of osteoderms in African spiny mice opens up new lines of investigation into their distinctive traits. Spiny mice are renowned for their extraordinary regenerative powers, which allow them to mend tissues faster than other mammals and without leaving scars. 

Researchers have been investigating the genetic processes that enable this extraordinary healing power because they may serve as a model for human tissue regeneration.

An investigation of the growth of spiny mice's osteoderms was conducted by a team of scientists led by University of Florida Biology Professor Malcolm Maden. Their findings supported the hypothesis of independent evolution by confirming the similarities between these bone structures and those of armadillos. The spiny mice's osteoderms are made of bone, as opposed to the keratin found in hedgehogs' quills and pangolins' scales.

Research on fish-tale geckos unveiled the mystery

Before researchers turned to fish-tale geckos from Madagascar, which also have osteoderms, the purpose of osteoderms in spiny mice was unknown. The fragile skin of geckos sheds easily, similar to that of spiny mice, and the osteoderms are thought to act as a defense mechanism. 

The outer skin and bone plates can separate when a predator attacks because the armor prevents teeth from piercing the tissue, allowing the mouse to flee by releasing the plates.

Intriguing concerns about the origins of this particular adaptation and its function in light of spiny mice's behavior and habitat are brought up by the existence of osteoderms in these rodents. 

The study also emphasizes the significance of revisiting museum collections in order to unearth untold facts about the animal kingdom. The African spiny mouse stands out as an intriguing case, testing our understanding of the capabilities and evolutionary history of these small but exceptional species as researchers continue to examine the diversity and complexity of mammalian adaptations.

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