f you focus directly on the skin of an African elephant, you can transport yourself far away from the 11-foot-tall beast. Disregard the tusks, the flapping ears, and 20-inch-wide feet. Once you’ve zeroed in on its fissured hide, you might as well be looking at the dried flecks of mud in an ancient lakebed or the cracked surface of Mars.
For a long time, scientists had no idea why those cracks existed. But as a new study in Nature Communications shows, those cracks aren’t there because the elephant is in need of a whole lot of lotion. As it turns out, a million years of evolution planned out every single line.
In the study published Tuesday, researchers from the University of Geneva and Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics attempt to understand once and for all why elephant skin is so wrinkled. Using microscopy and computer modeling, they explain that the skin is not a mess of wrinkles but rather an important pattern of intricate cracks that make it possible for animals to stay cool and protect themselves from parasites.
“Indeed, their skin is of course wrinkled — that’s very visible — but if one has a much closer look, one realizes that the integument is also deeply sculpted by an intricate network of miniscule interconnected crevices,” study lead and University of Geneva professor Michel Milinkovitch, Ph.D., explains to Inverse.
“This beautiful fine pattern of millions of channels is adaptive because it prevents shedding of applied mud and allows for the spreading and retention of five to 10 times more water [than at the skin’s immediate surface], allowing the animal to efficiently control its body temperature with evaporative cooling.”