Geckoes Launch Water Off Their Skin to Stay Clean

Mar 11, 2015 10:37 PM EDT

And you thought shaking your hair around like a wet dog was fun... A new study has found that geckos have a unique way of shedding moisture in a process that literally launches tiny water droplets away from their skin. Researchers even suspect that this keeps the delicate lizards clean and free of harmful microbial life.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, which details how this phenomenon has previously been seen on some insects and even artificial surfaces, but it has never before been observed in cold-blooded animals like the gecko.

Researchers from Australia and the United Kingdom observed the phenomenon, which they are calling "geckovescence," after closely examining the skin of the tiny lizard Lucasium steindachneri in humid conditions.

Watch video

You can watch a wild video of the phenomenon in action here.

The team noticed that instead of forming a thin film of moisture, as is seen on most animals in these types of climes, water on the gecko's skin grew and clumped into large droplets which then eventually fell away. Closer inspection revealed that these drops were actually self propelling, being launched far enough away as to not make contact with the skin again - regardless of where they were located. This means that while droplets located on the animal's chest and sides looked like they were simply shedding away, droplets on the lizards back were even being launched far enough so that a light breeze could carry them away.

So what is causing this process, which can best be described as tiny 'jumping droplets?' The researchers determined that the unique spinule architecture of a gecko's skin briefly holds water droplets in place, allowing them to build energy until they are too large to be contained. The droplets then finally break from their hold, the built energy releasing to propel the water away. You can imagine this is not all that different from trying to hold an inflating balloon until it becomes just too large, popping out of your grasp in a sudden release of pent up force.

Gregory and Jolanta Watson, co-authors of the study from the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, have even suggested that this mechanism specifically developed to help geckoes avoid moisture-loving bacteria from infecting their dry skin.

Jolanta added in an interview with New Scientist that she and her colleagues are now moving on to see if this strategy can be adapted for synthetic coatings, helping craft a material that is even more effective at propelling water than current hydrophobic designs.

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