Does Melanin Act as Black Bear Body Armor?

Pigments are one of the wonders of the natural world. They’re responsible for life as we know it through photosynthesis (thanks, chlorophyll!) and have lent themselves to spectacular displays of color in myriad plants and animals alike.

We know pigments like melanin (which is what gives our hair, eyes, and skin color) are useful for reflecting/absorbing light energy, but here’s something new — they also act as body armor!

Melanic keratin, the stuff our hair & fingernails are made of, is less susceptible to wear and tear as it’s substantially thicker than non-melanic keratin. This may be because melanin is incorporated into keratin as granules that reinforce the keratin’s structure at a molecular level, making it tougher.

That certainly helps out black bears, who spend much of their time in dense forests. Black fur, being more resistant to abrasion than any other color, would be most useful to an animal moving through dense undergrowth full of sharp leaves and branches. It’s also probably less energetically costly to have darker fur as opposed to having to regrow any patches that have been rubbed too thin!

Aaron Huelsman

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