Newt Cuts Itself to Use Ribs as "Concealed Weapons"

Scott Norris
for National Geographic News
August 28, 2009

Like the X-men's Wolverine extending his claws, the Spanish ribbed newt slashes through itself with its sharp rib bones to create defensive spines, according to a new study.

Scientists were already aware that the amphibian species responds to threats by thrusting out its rib bones, which then get coated with toxic skin secretions.

But little was known about how the odd adaptation worked.

It had been thought that the newt simply contracted its body, forcing the ends of the ribs out through special openings in the skin.

Now Egon Heiss, of the University of Vienna, and a team of Austrian scientists have shown that the newt is actually rotating its ribs forward until their spear-sharp points pierce through warts in the animal's skin.

"The phenomenon has been known for a long time, but this is the first really detailed study of the rib movements," said Tim Halliday, a biologist at the Open University in London, England, who was not involved in the research.

Quick Healers

Various animals have bony projections that serve as spines. But only the Spanish ribbed newt and a few salamander relatives can brandish their own rib cages like concealed weapons, the researchers say.

(Related: "15-Foot Antarctic 'Salamander' Found; Was Toothy Terror.")

To find out how the newt does it, Heiss's team simulated a predator attack by touching live newts with cotton balls until the amphibians assumed defensive postures.

X-ray and CT scans revealed that rib rotation is key to driving the "spines" outward.

The study didn't find any permanent pores or openings in the animals' skin, which means that the newts are piercing through their own bodies each time the spines deploy.

Continued on Next Page >>




NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.