What is an Exoskeleton? - Definition, Advantages & Examples

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  • 0:02 Exoskeletons
  • 1:02 Who Has an Exoskeleton
  • 1:36 Advantages and…
  • 3:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terry Dunn

Terry has a master's degree in environmental communications and has taught in a variety of settings.

Exoskeletons are a feature of some of the world's most successful animals. Learn about the advantages and disadvantages of having an exoskeleton, what an exoskeleton is, and what animals have exoskeletons.

Exoskeletons

You know those variety boxes of chocolates that have candies with firm, chocolate coatings and squishy, sometimes runny, ingredients in the center? That is the best way to visualize animals with exoskeletons. The chocolate coating would be the exoskeleton, and the squishy center would be the organs, muscles, and fluids. Sorry if I ruined your appetite!

An exoskeleton is the stiff covering on the outside of some creatures. There are often flexible joints with underlying muscles that allow for a range of movement of the exoskeleton. It is actually the opposite of how we are put together. Our type of skeleton is called an endoskeleton. Our hard structures (our bones) are internal and our soft tissues are on top of and in between our bones.

Interestingly, although an exoskeleton is part of the animal, it is not a living structure. It is made of chitin (a complex polysaccharide that is chemically similar to cellulose) and calcium carbonate (common in rocks and eggshells).

Who Has an Exoskeleton?

You probably know a lot of animals with exoskeletons. An exoskeleton is a key feature of arthropods, a category of animals that includes insects, spiders, and crustaceans. Grasshoppers, cockroaches, ants, bees, cicadas, scorpions, lobsters, shrimp, black widows, snails and crabs are all examples of animals with exoskeletons. As you may have noticed, most insects have several segments, each one with a somewhat separate piece of an exoskeleton, so the animal's head and body parts can move separately.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Exoskeletons

Having a hard covering on the outside in the form of an exoskeleton is a great defense against predators; it helps to support the body and it's like wearing a portable raincoat that keeps the creature from getting wet or drying out. It also protects the animal's soft, inner organs and muscles from injury. That's probably why so many movie heroes and heroines don metal exoskeletons when going into battle. Compared to those of us with endoskeletons, it seems like an excellent survival strategy. So, why wouldn't all animals have exoskeletons?

It turns out, an exoskeleton on a larger animal would be so heavy that animal would be barely able to move. So, while having an exoskeleton may be decent protection from predators, the weight of an exoskeleton is the reason you don't see human-sized insects.

Cicada molting
cicada

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