Throughout the animal kingdom, you can find many unique adaptations that make life easier and a little safer for certain animals. Animals need to have a way to protect themselves. For some species, their skin is a strong armor that may even be called “bulletproof”.
Which animal skin is bulletproof? You may have heard stories of bullets ricocheting off armadillos or not being able to pierce through hippo skin. Unfortunately, no animals have truly bulletproof skin. However, there are lots of species, like the armadillo and the hippopotamus, that have specialized skins. This tough skin protects the animal’s vital organs from damage. They can still be injured, but oftentimes the injuries are not fatal.
These strong and special animal skins are even inspiring human body armor. For example, scientists are studying the way that pangolin scales crack. Their scales break in a way that doesn’t injure the animals. This research could lead to less bodily damage in protective clothing for soldiers.
What Animals Have the Strongest Skin?
Even though there is no true bulletproof skin, many animals have tough skin or body “armor”. The special skin that these animals have helps protect them from predators and severe injury.
1. Ironclad Beetle
When you think of animals that could be bulletproof, you may not think of a small insect. Ironclad beetles may have the strongest animal armor of any species. The exoskeletons of ironclad beetles can reportedly withstand the pressure of being run over by a car. Scientists believe the chemical makeup and the architecture of the fibers contribute to the strength of the exoskeleton. Ironclad beetles are about the same size as a bullet so they probably wouldn’t survive being shot, but it is impressive that this bug cannot just be squished with your shoe.
Armadillos are the only mammals that have shells. Their shells are not large bones like turtles. An armadillo shell consists of multiple bony plates, called osteoderms, that are connected by keratin and collagen fibers. Since the shell is composed of lots of small osteoderms, the skin is still flexible. The armadillo can roll itself into a protective ball.
Urban legends say that armadillos are bulletproof because people have “seen” bullets ricocheting off the balled-up animals. In reality, their protective shell prevents many predators from making a meal of the armadillo but it is not entirely bulletproof.
Unlike the armadillo, pangolins use keratin plates instead of bones to protect themselves. Pangolins are the only scaled mammal. They can roll themselves into a protective ball when needed.
In addition to the layer of armor that the scales provide, they also have a special cracking property. Whenever a scale is damaged, it cracks away from the pangolin’s body. This means that it is harder to pierce through the skin of the animal. Scientists are researching this protective cracking for use in soldiers’ body armor.
Crocodiles have strong skin that is commonly used in leather goods like boots and handbags. In addition to the strong but stretchy skin, crocodiles possess osteoderms (bony plates) under their skin. These plates are located mostly along the dorsal side of the animals. They act as a protective layer and help prevent vital organs from being damaged.
5. Polar Bear
A polar bear’s protective armor is more than just its epidermis and dermis layers. These cold-weather animals have two layers of thick fur to insulate the body. Additionally, there are 4 inches of fat located under the skin. Altogether, the fat, skin, and fur create a thick barrier that protects the polar bear from the elements and injury.
Polar bears do not have any natural predators even though wolves, walruses, and whales are capable of killing them. The tough skin and surrounding layers are more important for protecting against the cold. The bears live in freezing temperatures and regularly swim through the icy water to move around.
Elephants are pachyderms, which means thick skin. This group of animals also includes rhinos and hippos. Their skin can be up to 1.5 inches thick along their back and sides. Even though they have tough skin to protect their body, it is surprisingly sensitive to the sun. This is why you’ll see elephants using their trunks to throw dirt and water on their backs.
Unfortunately, an elephant’s thick skin is not enough to make it bulletproof. Even with continued education about poaching and the ivory trade, elephants are still being slaughtered for their tusks.
Rhinos are another animal in the pachyderm group. The skin on their backs and flanks can be up to 2 inches thick. This makes it protective against injury from predators and other rhinos. It can defend the animal from small handheld weapons, but it will most likely not stop a bullet.
Like elephant skin, rhino skin is sensitive to the sun. Since rhinos do not have a trunk to throw dirt on their backs, you will often see them wallowing in dirt or mud. Mud is an excellent sunscreen and also prevents the rhinos from being bit by flies.
Hippos are considered pachyderms like rhinos and elephants, but their skin is unique within the group. They also have 2-inch thick skin on their backs and flanks. It is considerably thinner on their bellies and the base of their legs. There are reports that small bullets have not been able to pierce through a hippo’s tough and thick skin. This means they might be the closest animal to having bulletproof skin.
The coolest part of hippopotamus skin is the secretions it produces. Hippos secrete a mucus-like substance called blood sweat. This compound acts as a moisturizer, sunscreen, and antimicrobial treatment when hippos are out of the water. Scientists have even isolated the unique compounds that give blood sweat its red color.
Manatees are most closely related to elephants, so it is no surprise that they also possess tough skin. Their thick skin provides warmth and prevents water loss since manatees are fully aquatic. They also move between salt and freshwater environments. Manatee skin cells have a fast turnover rate to help prevent algae and barnacles from taking hold.
Under the skin, manatees have a layer of protective fat. While this layer is most likely for temperature regulation, it also protects the animal’s vital organs from damage. Manatees do not have the best hearing and they are regularly found in areas that are popular with boaters. This combination means that boat strikes are the leading cause of injury and death for manatees. With help from rehabilitation facilities, most boat strike manatees make a full recovery, thanks to the thick skin and fat layer.
10. Whale Shark
Whale sharks hold the Guinness World Record for being the animal with the thickest skin. Their skin is 10 centimeters (4 inches) thick. This strong skin prevents a whale shark from being seriously injured by a predator. It also helps the animal regulate body functions when it dives up to 6,000 feet below the surface.
11. Sperm Whale
Even though whale sharks hold the world record for thickest animal skin, sperm whales are reported to have skin that is up to 35 centimeters (14 inches) thick. These large, toothed whales are known for their head shape and forward-facing blowhole. Many whale watchers report that their skin looks wrinkly.